As I've mentioned, I started judo whilst still at primary school. As a class we visited the local sport centre to trial all of the sports clubs they had on offer. Only one of those clubs let us throw our classmates into crash mats, so, unsurprisingly, that was the one that got our attention. That evening half a dozen of us turned up to Maesteg Judo Club's beginner class. After a couple of weeks the numbers dwindled and, of the original six, only my brother and I remained. Fourteen years, countless uchi-komi drills and 263 wins by ippon later I have graded to the level of 3rd Dan (third level black belt for the uninitiated) and represented wales at 3 Commonwealth Championships as well as the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014.
Off the mat judo has enabled me to reap many benefits that I would have otherwise have never enjoyed:
- Travel - Through judo I have been lucky enough to go to many countries that I would have otherwise never been able to visit (often getting time off school to do so, a brilliant perk at the time). From Holland to Mauritius I have travelled fairly extensively, even if the majority of the time is spent in budget hotels and sport centres.
- Fitness - I had taken for granted the fact that training for judo means you never have to actively train abs. They just exist. The high volume of core exercise that is inherent in judo, coupled with the benefits of having a good muscle:fat ratio means that the majority of judo players stay shredded without really giving it much thought. As an extension to that, since finishing as a full time athlete in 2014 I have realised just how easy it is to stay in shape when you're training three times a day anyway compared to when you work all day and have to train in the night!
- Social - One aspect that I didn't fully appreciate until this year, but it is an excellent way to meet people from all sorts of places and backgrounds. For an individual combat sport there is a large amount of respect, even amongst those in the same category.
Since being diagnosed in January I have been repeatedly surprised by the ways in which the judo community have rallied around and attempted to help, as well as the unexpected benefits that stem from my participation in the sport.
Although obviously not a benefit exclusive to judoka (judo players), my level of fitness at the time of diagnosis meant that doctors were able to go ahead with a full-strength treatment plan, without worrying too much about the effect it would have on my general health. Further to this the first surprising benefit came when I asked for a second opinion and was referred to the leading brain tumour specialist at the Royal Marsden, who it turns out has children who are keen judoka and had in fact been sat in line with my mat, watching me in Glasgow.
After being transferred to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff for my operation I received a great deal of visitors both friends and family. Who was the first non-relative to arrive at the hospital to see me? One of the judo boys. When I got home to convalesce, who was at my door within hours? My judo coach. As part of the many well wishes I had sent to me I had not only my close friends from judo but also messages from people I'd fought against throughout my teens and hadn't seen since. I can't imagine many sports can compete with that level of camaraderie, especially when the sport in question involves such direct, physical, one-on-one competition.
When I had recovered from surgery and came home there was a massive amount of help and support given by the judo community, from the lowest level right through to the international governing body. I attended my club's annual presentation to present some of the trophies and was profoundly moved to find I had been voted "Player's Player" by the club's competitive players; I was contacted by the medical staff at Sport Wales to inform me that if there was anything they could do to help I need only ask; Welsh Judo conducted fund raising at the National Championships to help fund my bucket list; a number of friends I've made through judo have fund raised either towards my bucket list or towards my chosen charities; and I even had a donation from the IJF themselves along with the offer to arrange my time at the Kodokan.
More indirectly my participation in judo at a fairly high level has meant that my story has been of interest to media outlets, which has given me an opportunity to not only raise money for my planned travels but also draw attention to the issue of Brain Cancer in young adults and the associated charities.
So I suppose the Cliffs Notes version of this post would be this: When the going is good judo keeps you fit, confident, well travelled, disciplined and with clearly visible abdominals. When things start to go south the community rallies around and looks after it's own. I'm not sure if many other sports can so confidently boast that as a selling point, so if you haven't already, as British Judo have been saying recently, #ThrowYourselfIntoJudo.