With the passing of each Olympic cycle comes an inevitable renewal. Retirements, for some, a re-focus for others. As Rio 2016 fades into memory, the Road to Tokyo 2020 becomes the programmed journey for those with ambitions unfulfilled and for judo players, in particular, the incentive to compete for the ultimate honour in the sport’s heartland is incomparable.
Those who were not yet ready for the grand stage in this past summer find time is again on their side. And for Neil MacDonald, taking -60kg bronze at the European Open in Glasgow yesterday underlined why British Judo chiefs believe he could yet emerge over the next four years as a viable medal contender in Japan.
Claiming silver at the European junior championships earlier this year, the young Scot spent the build-up to Brazil putting many of the Olympics aspirants through their paces at his training base in Walsall in the knowledge that he might speedily usurp them in the rankings. At 19, patience should not be a virtue. And in pinning Germany’s Philip Graf by ippon to land a significant milestone, the fighter senses he is making all the right moves.
“Last year I was a year younger and I wasn’t expecting anything,” he said. “I’m still young – I’m not at senior level yet but over the past year I’ve really developed my judo. Controlling the nerves has been a big thing because when I came last year, I was 18 but thinking: ‘I’m fighting 30-year-olds here and I’m going to be so weak. I’m not as experienced as them.’ I was doing all right but not my best.
“I’m coming this year thinking I can beat them. When you’ve got someone who is 30 years old with lots of results behind them, it can be intimidating. You always think they’re going to be so much stronger but this year I didn’t think about it and just did my judo.”
In what will be this event’s last staging in Glasgow ahead of its move to Belgrade in 2017, some of his compatriots fared less well at the Emirates Arena but will take valuable learning points. Malin Wilson was ousted in the repechage while Rachel Tyler, Michelle Boyle and Tino Volante were likewise unable to push for medals. But among the British contingent, there was a gold for former European junior champion Lucy Renshall, who underlined her long-term potential by beating Nadia Bazynski by ippon in the -63kg final, and for Kelly Edwards who landed the title in the -52kg.
The latter, now aged 25, was forced out of the running for Rio due to a plague of concussions but has been cleared to proceed onwards towards Tokyo along a timeline that will take in her wedding next September in Edinburgh. After missing out on one Olympics, the fires are burning strongly.
“It has made me appreciate doing the sport now, doing the training and competing at a high level,” Edwards said. “Just to be able to do that again means so much to me because there was a point where I didn’t know whether I would be able to do it. Everything has been going very well since I came back so to be able to do this is really nice.”