Judo's Sally Conway overcome by emotional welcome home

It's the morning after the night before. The tidying up effort is well under way. Banners are still strung around the room, the Olympic-themed floral arrangements are gathered together, and the special Rio 2016 and red, white and blue balloons are being moved to the periphery, where they can still hint at the pride and the joy but will prove less of a distraction to the next generation of young hopefuls as they arrive at Edinburgh Judo Club for their coaching session later in the day.

Sally Conway proudly shows off her Olympic bronze medal. PPicture:  Steven Scott Taylor
Sally Conway proudly shows off her Olympic bronze medal. PPicture: Steven Scott Taylor

In the middle of it all Sally Conway is decked out in her Team GB tracksuit and bronze medal, posing for photos, a smile emblazoned on her face.

It has been there since she secured victory over Bernadette Graf of Austria in a tense contest in the -70kg category, a single throw midway through the contest enough to gain her a place on the podium and a shiny souvenir of Brazil.

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The night before, the premises were packed with family, friends and star-struck youngsters keen to welcome home their Olympic medallist. There was a piper to herald her arrival, video messages from her coach, Billy Cusack, who missed out of the celebrations due to other commitments in Japan, and a chance to relive the highlights of her Rio sojourn and sign autographs and pose for photos.

She says it is the first time throughout the whole adventure that she cried. “It was just so surreal. So emotional. Honestly, when I walked in I couldn’t control myself. I was so overwhelmed by how much everyone else is enjoying my medal.

“When I won my medal I was so happy and when I looked over at Billy [Cusack] he was so emotional and crying so much and that made realise that it wasn’t just my medal, it is his medal as well. It has been a joint effort and it’s the same for my family and friends who have been with me through the ups and downs. I have so many people to thank, I just don’t know how I’m going to do it but I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

Cusack wasn’t part of the official Team GB coaching set up so he watched from the stands. It meant he could shout instructions and support and he was there to give her a quick nod or a reassuring word every time she headed into the arena. Also in the stands were her mum and stepdad, as well as friends, but on the mat, there was just her and a lifetime of preparation.

Conway took up the sport at ten – by the time she was a teenager she was dreaming of Olympic glory. By the time she was 18, the Bristol player had moved to Edinburgh to pursue it. In London, in 2012, it didn’t go to plan, ousted at the last 16-stage. But lessons were learned.

“When you get to Rio you go into this Olympic bubble, where you forget about the outside world and are just focused on what you need to do to deliver on the day. We all watched the other finals every day and I was getting more and more excited and couldn’t wait to fight. When my day came round I still had that excitement. I was nervous but I was able to make that work in my favour ,soak up the atmosphere and enjoy every single moment of it.”

That was what she failed to do it four years earlier, when the pressure got to her. “I think you need to go and experience the hype of a multi-sport event, which is also the highest level you can compete at in my sport. There’s the opening ceremony, the media attention, everything is so overwhelming . I did learn so much from London. I have been working with a sports psychologist as well and that has really helped me be more consistent throughout the qualifying period and it all came together on that one day.”

On a wall behind us, already encased in a presentation frame, is the jacket of her judo gi, the Rio emblem stamped on the chest, while the necklace she is wearing – the one that doesn’t have a hefty bronze medallion attached – sports the five Olympic rings, a symbol she is already planning to have inked on her body, joining the tattoo on her arm that simply states “Believe”.

They are all special reminders of a Games where GB athletes defied the odds, finishing second in the medal table, ahead of China, with the biggest medal haul in 108 years and the biggest overseas return ever.

“It was a competition within a competition and we were all aware that we were overtaking China. It was crazy. Everyone was buzzing. We were slow starting but then the momentum picked up and up. It knew it was such a big deal.

“But with so many medals it was hard to keep up with it all and some people coming back to the village and it was quite awkward because you didn’t know how they had got on. You didn’t want to say ‘Well Done’ in case they hadn’t won but it felt rude not to say anything so you were trying to do a quick check with people around you and then quickly congratulating them. There were just so many medals!”

Banking hers early doors, she was able to soak up the atmosphere, whether by getting along to see the GB hockey team make it through their semi-final, or heading to the athletics track to witness a moment in history. “It was the night of the relays, so it was Usain Bolt’s last race and the whole crowd in the stadium stood up and it gave me chills. It was awesome, so cool.”

There was also table tennis with the likes of Andy Murray in the village as everyone revelled in the team spirit. “The whole experience was just so cool. I can’t stop smiling and it has been amazing how much the Olympics meant to everyone.

“I came off social media for the couple of days before I fought so when I went back on I couldn’t believe the amount of messages. People saying that I had helped inspire them to follow their dreams. Even my step brother’s girlfriend, who is a really good Irish dancer but had stopped, she said I had inspired her to give it another go. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the best part of the medal for me.”