Gemma Gibbons was ranked a lowly 33rd in the world going into the judo competition at the Games, and was fighting in a higher weight category for the first time. But, against heavy odds, and with a broken thumb, she won a silver medal – and captured the hearts of millions with her whispered tribute to her late mother.
It was Great Britain’s first Olympic judo medal for 12 years. Like so many other members of Team GB, Gibbons had risen to the occasion, and got it right on the day.
Some people cross continents to get to the Olympic Games. Gibbons crossed a river. Born and raised in Greenwich in the south-east of the city, she won her medal at the ExCel centre just over the Thames in Docklands.
Nearly two decades of involvement in the sport had prepared her for that one competition, from the day when, as a six-year-old, she was first introduced to judo by her mum. Now, with possibly two more Olympics ahead of her, she has become one of the most celebrated sportswomen in the country. That August afternoon marked the start of a new, more feted phase of her career.
Yet it marked the end of something too. She’s a Londoner for life – no-one who meets her would have any doubt about that. But these days she no longer lives in Greenwich or fights out of the Metro Club in the royal borough. These days she lives in the north of Edinburgh, with her fiancé and fellow-judoka Euan Burton, and trains at Judo Scotland’s base in Ratho, just outside the capital. The couple were engaged on Hogmanay, and yesterday Gibbons, who is currently out of action with a broken wrist, announced on Twitter that they are to marry in May. “Been a ridiculously crazy few last days planning our wedding,” she wrote. “Broken wrist = lots of spare time = a May 2013 wedding”.
Gibbons and Burton have yet to announce where the wedding will be, but whatever the venue for the ceremony, home for the foreseeable future is here in Scotland, even if it does have its drawbacks for someone raised in a slightly more clement climate. “I really like Edinburgh, but the weather’s not so great,” Gibbons says. “The only things are the weather and then obviously my friends and family are down south, but they’re visiting me quite often, so I’m quite lucky.
“It’s a lot quieter and more slow than London. I spent three years in Bath, and that’s a really lovely place as well, and I love London too. But Bath’s probably a little bit too small to live there forever, and London actually is too big. Whereas Edinburgh has got everything, but you can get to know all of it.”
We have met up on another freezing afternoon in the capital earlier this month, and are having a chat in the offices of Red Sky, her management company, in George Street in the city centre. She is often in that part of town, and often recognised by strangers. Even now, eight months on from the Olympics, she is not wholly comfortable with being a celebrity.
“It was really strange at the beginning, straight after the Games, when I had people coming up to me in the shops and saying ‘Oh, are you the judo girl?’ ‘Yeah, I’m the judo girl’.
“I think you get used to it – and it has calmed down a bit since the Games. The first couple of months it was pretty much all the time.
“But you usually get tweets saying ‘Were you in Top Shop in Edinburgh?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, that was me’. They don’t often actually come up, but then after I’ll get a tweet saying ‘I saw you in George Street’.”
She has never sought fame – she would not have chosen judo if she had – and perhaps she is uncomfortable with it because it contrasts with the ethos of her sport, which prizes humility and self-discipline. But you get the impression that, in addition to whatever virtues she has learned from judo, she is also naturally unassuming.
Certainly, she never thought of the reaction she would get when, after winning her semi-final in London, she looked up to the skies and mouthed the words “I love you, mum”. It was a private celebration which, thanks to the presence of television cameras, went worldwide. “It was really strange, but everyone has been really nice about it, so that’s okay,” is her verdict now on the attention that gesture received.
The phrase ‘role model’ may have been tarnished by misuse, but Gibbons is one person who genuinely deserves the label. Whatever adversity she has faced in her career, she has always emerged stronger. There was the shoulder surgery which kept her out of action for six months a year or so before the Games. There was the broken thumb she sustained during the Olympic competition itself, which meant surgery and a four-month break late last year. And now, she is on the sidelines again, having broken her wrist last week in a training accident.
“I’ve got this cast on for four weeks, and during that time I can’t do anything,” she says. “I’m already bored with it – I can’t wait to get back into training.
“I’m missing quite a few big events, like the Turkish Grand Prix and the European Championships. But the main thing is I’ll be back for the world championships in Rio in August.
“It’s hard, because your body does break down in a sport like judo when you’re getting bashed around pretty much all the time. There are quite a lot of injuries and a lot of people do have to have surgery.”
While Gibbons broke her wrist while doing weights on her own, training in a group carries its own risks too. The fighting is strictly controlled, but the aim is to come as close as possible to competition conditions – with the important distinction that the sexes are mixed. “It’s girls and boys all together. The youngest probably is about 17 or 18, then it goes up to early 30s.
“But the people I mostly train with are boys who are a similar weight to me but a few years younger, so they haven’t quite got that man strength yet.
“They are definitely stronger than me, because they are men, 19, 20, 21, but we can give each other good fights. There will be some people that I fight and I have to hold back. Generally, you get the best fights when you don’t have to hold back.
“If people are away at training camps or competing and there are limited numbers, you just have to make the best with what you’ve got. But, generally, we can go full out on each other. You couldn’t train like that all day every day, because you’d probably break down, but that’s what we have on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, to cater to pretty much full-on fighting.
“Day-to-day training you are sore, but you’re used to it because you’re doing it every day. You just get on with it and ignore the pains. I think everyone’s in the same boat. Everyone feels injured and hurt, but you just get on with it.”
The particular frustration with this latest injury is that it came with Gibbons in top form. After those four months out in which she had that thumb operation and moved to Scotland, she returned to competition at the British Championships and won. She then went on to the Dusseldorf Grand Prix and won again, surprising herself by how well she was performing.
“I was really happy,” she says of that victory in Germany, which means she is undefeated since the Olympic final. “Obviously, after the Olympics, I knew that I could do it, but I’d only been back full-time for a couple of months, so I was still feeling a little bit sluggish.
“It was my first time back fighting at an international tournament, so I was a bit nervous. But I was really pleased with the outcome. Judo is definitely unpredictable. It’s one of those sports where you can’t say you definitely know that person’s going to win. You’ve got probably the top ten to 15 people in the world and it could be any one of those. The top five in the world have probably got more chance of it being them, but, at the Olympics, I was way out of the rankings and managed to get on the podium. So it can happen in judo.
“I don’t know what makes the difference. I just train as hard as I can, be the best I can be and go out there and see what happens.”
For many members of Team GB, home advantage was what made the difference last year, but Gibbons is not so sure. “I don’t know about home advantage. It was amazing how you could hear how the crowd were backing you, but, for me, the advantage was not having the pressure that a lot of other people had. It was my first time competing at the Olympic Games and one of the first times I’d even competed in that weight category, so there wasn’t much pressure on me. I think that helped me a lot, whereas a lot of other people in other sports, like Jessica Ennis, I really salute them for managing to perform under all the pressure they had on them.
“So that’s what I was a bit worried about going to that competition in Germany. I was just worried that I could still perform. But I’ve shown that I can now.”
Having turned 26 in January, she will still, injuries permitting, be in her fighting prime when the Rio Olympics come around in 2015 and, perhaps, for the 2020 Games as well in Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo – the vote to decide the host of those Games being due to take place in September.
In the shorter term, however, she has her sights set on next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
“I’ve never fought in a Commonwealth Games before, or a Commonwealth Youth Games, so it’s definitely something I want to do. A home Commonwealth Games is a massive goal, so if I qualify I’ll be there.”
As Gibbons explains this, a helpful idea occurs to me. At the world championships and the Olympics, the home nations join together and fight as Team GB. If she has never turned out for England, perhaps she could fight for her adoptive country instead. Let’s ask her.
“No, I’ve never competed for England.”
So you could fight for Scotland then, right? “No. I’m English, so I’m going to be fighting for England. Which will be quite fun.
“For a lot of the guys who will be fighting for Scotland, it is literally a home Commonwealth Games, but even though I’ll be fighting for England, it does feel like a home Games for me too. I’ll tell Euan to get all his Scottish mates to shout for me.”
A few other Scots may just join in, and there are sure to be some English supporters there too. In fact, the experience of the Manchester Games in 2002 suggests that all British competitors will have a lot of support, no matter what team they are representing.
And, in any case, there is a sense in which Gibbons and her colleagues, whether fighting for England, Scotland or anywhere else, will also be representing judo.
She tried a lot of sports at school, and was pretty good at most, but she has learned a lot from judo, and believes many others could too.
“I’d just like people to start trying judo out. It’s not a mainstream sport, but I’d tell people to Google their nearest judo club, go down and give it a go. It is good fun, especially for boys and girls that quite often like fighting and get in trouble for it. It’s a way they can fight without actually getting in trouble.”
Did she like fighting and getting in trouble for it?
“I liked fighting and winning,” she replies. “I probably liked beating the boys up more than the girls. It wasn’t ‘I will compete’. It was ‘I will win’. I think I had that from the beginning.”
I think she has it still.