The inside track from Athletics to Judo

Nigerian-born Samson Omonua was inspired by 2008 Beijing Olympics to become an elite judoka for Great Britain

Former junior elite sprinter Samson Omonua had never experienced judo before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but at the ripe age of 32, in the lead up to the Games, he was inspired to contact Pinewood judo club, where his journey towards high performance began, writes Donna Richardson.

Here under the ward of the late Don Werner, the Reading-based judoka blossomed from a novice to elite athlete, winning a place on the Great Britain squad by gaining a bronze medal in the +100kg class at last December’s British Championships.

Now aged 37 he has aspirations to represent Great Britain in judo at the 2016 Olympic Games in his 40th year, amid tough competition from rivals Chris Sherrington and James Austin.

Omonua came to Britain to study at boarding school as a youngster and after discovering athletics, he was embraced into the fast track performance system.

He represented Great Britain as a junior athlete becoming national champion at U20 at the age of 13. Then he won the AAA indoor U17 60m title in 1992 and was English schools runner up that summer in the 100 metres.

“I used to be a national sprinter and I ran with the likes of Marlon Devonish, Jason Gardener, Dwain Chambers, and Mark Hylton, who are still my friends and we keep in contract on facebook,” he said.

“I came over from Nigeria at a very young age for schooling and was chosen to represent Great Britain and I believe I still hold the national u17 and u18 record for the 150 metres.

“I stopped being an elite sprinter at the age of 20, when I realised that my physique was no longer so suited to it. I was a great junior but not a very good senior.”

However, he still had the “explosive energy” and decided to translate that into judo later on in life, after he established himself as a wealthy property developer.

He said: “Inspired in the run-up to the Olympics, I joined the Pinewood club and Don Werner took me under his tutelage.

“Within four months he entered me into a competition at High Wycombe, and that was my first taste of success in this highly addictive sport.

“Don told me that he had never had a heavyweight and he put me through all my gradings and by my 34th birthday I had my 1st Dan.

“There’s not a lot of people who have done that and it impressed Don how quickly I did it. “In less than five years I have gone from 1st Mon to being on the GB squad and looking towards the 2016 Olympics before my 40th birthday.”

“Don pushed me to my limit, and I guess I am quite disciplined anyway from my time as a junior sprinter.”

Don Werner, who passed away after losing his battle with cancer early this year, was a national treasure in the world of judo, producing four world champions in Karen Roberts and Georgina Singleton who won junior world titles in 1992 and 1994. Lynn Tilley, who won five World Masters events and Nicola Fairbrother, who became Senior World Champion in 1993. Don’s other coaching achievements include producing four Olympians and one Olympic silver medal, as well as nine European titles: two Commonwealth titles: 28 World medals: 132 black belts and 144 British National Squad members.

With Don’s seal of approval, Samson was accepted into the prestigious Pinewood judo family:

“Judo is just one big community and everyone knows everyone. I like that, with my own family being so far away in Nigeria,” he added.

His advice for judo is: “First thing is find a good club that does competitive judo rather than recreational and push yourself our of your comfort zone.

“As a sprinter I was in my comfort zone in terms of fitness but on a judo mat, its the hardest sport i have ever played.

“I was aiming to go to the Commonwealths but a knee injury has changed my plans. It takes years of conditioning to get your body to that level.

“The Olympics is in my sight as within three years I have gotten to the top three, and I’ve only spent two years at the top level at judo, so it is possible I could be aiming for the Olympics in 2016.

“Every year I have been improving at the nationals, I started seventh, then fifth and now bronze.

“Next year I am hoping to gain silver or even to become British Champion.”

Words by Donna Richardson. Photos Mike Varey and supplied by athlete.