EVEN in sport, it doesn’t do to reveal the age of a mature woman. How best to illustrate Sarah Clark’s longevity, then? Perhaps we could tiptoe around the pitfalls of etiquette by outlining that she earned her black belt at the age of 15, and that this happened in the early Nineties.
The three-times Olympian has been untouchable in British judo, and Scottish judo, for a decade, and was highly competitive before that. London 2012 once loomed on the horizon, like a dreamy swansong, but it didn’t go according to script and Clark, like Euan Burton, found herself confronted with the reality of retiring on a low note and didn’t like it one bit.
So to Glasgow, where there is far more likelihood of a Scottish judoka retiring on a high note – at most weights, England will present the sternest competition. The only hitch is that Clark is scrambling to qualify, having taken a break in late 2012 that extended into 2013 while she contemplated her future.
Born in South Shields but a resident of Edinburgh since 1996, the 2006 European champion has taken steps to prolong her career such as reducing her training workload, maintaining her weight below a threshold of 63kg rather than 57kg and trying to adjust her style to fit in with new rules. But none of it is easy – least of all fighting girls who are literally half her age.
“I have not been behind anyone else in Britain for a long time, so it has given me something to aim for,” she says of a qualifying quest which took her to Sofia last weekend, and which will be made or broken in Uruguay and Argentina next month.
“I think a lot of things have changed – you grow older and wiser and I have got to look after myself more. I couldn’t do the amount of training I used to do in the past so I’ve got to be a bit smarter and monitor my training, and at the end of some days I am doing coaching in my club and setting up links in the community… I have found the mental side of things to be more tiring than the physical.
“My only focus at the moment is getting the performances I need and getting those points on the board. But, every Sunday and Monday and Wednesday, I am at the club and everyone is constantly talking about Glasgow – there is a real buzz there.
“I would say 80 per cent of the kids [at the Edinburgh Judo Club] and their parents applied for tickets and a lot of people didn’t get what they wanted. This was prior to me deciding what weight I was going to go for and people were asking: ‘What day will you be fighting? Will it be 63kg or 57kg?’
“I decided it was going to be 63kg, and that means that I can wake up thinking ‘what am I going to eat today?’ rather than ‘what am I not going to eat today?’”
Clark, like Burton, is a hugely respected figure in Scottish judo. They are three-times Olympians and, at HQ in Ratho, they are walking slogans of what can be achieved through perseverance and commitment. But it must be hard for Jodie Mullen to like Sarah Clark, because she is threatening to crash her coming-of-age party.
Mullen is the up-and-coming talent at 63kg, who could yet be one of the enduring faces of Glasgow 2014. But, if Clark qualifies, and Scottish selectors have the good sense to pick them both, they could meet on the mat in the first round of the Commonwealth Games.
Few would bet against the elder in what would be a truly tantalising encounter.
Clark is not the kind of athlete who leans on participation as a crutch when things go wrong. She is a winner, and protective of the reputation for steeliness she has forged. But she has been looking around her and assessing the talent that is emerging and is confident that Team Scotland will be toasting multiple medals on the opening weekend of the Games.
“I think it is going to be great. I could see the Commonwealth Games being the end of my career and it might be a really good end. In Manchester I won silver and that was the start of everything, and it would be a good way to end with gold – not just for me, but to be able to give back to Scotland what it has given me,” she says. “I am really looking forward to it because, after London, I wasn’t ready to stop, to be honest. I’d love to go out on a high with a gold medal but it’s more than that – it was the right decision. I knew after London and after having a bit of time off that the decision would make itself. It has been a long career and I haven’t got the highs I was looking for in terms of Olympic and world medals.
“In Scotland we are as strong if not stronger than we were in 2002. There are seven or eight Scots with gold-medal chances. I have fought Jodie Mullen twice recently and beaten her both times but I’ve not been in this position – being chased – for a long time, probably not since the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
“I’ve not been out of the No 1 position in Scotland in all that time.”