A COUPLE of months ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, James Millar had tapered off his training, convinced that the door had been slammed shut in his face. He hadn’t made the Scottish team and had come to terms with the fact that he would have to satisfy himself with the role of team cheerleader.
But then, ten days before the opening ceremony, things changed as injury struck one of the Scots. “I was told to get training as there was a possibility I could be called up and a week beforehand, I was told I was definitely in,” he recalled.
“It was all a bit of a rollercoaster. James [Austin] and I are close friends and he was a great supporter throughout the Games – at matside cheering us all on.”
In a Games that harvested so much precious metal for the Scottish judokas, Millar took home a bronze medal in the under-66kg category and decided that was as good a time as any to bow out of international competition.
He was completely satisfied with the decision. But, with the European Championships heading to British soil for the first time in two decades, the player turned coach, admits he may suffer a twinge of jealousy as he cheers on others.
“Glasgow was a fantastic way to finish my career and I’m at a point where it’s not sunk in that I’ve stopped competing so I don’t really miss it, but two or three years down the line when I see some of my close friends still competing, I’m sure I’ll be thinking that I could have gone on for a bit longer. I think I’ve just got to let it go and let the younger and fitter guys get on with it.”
Speaking as he helped promote the event, which will be staged at the Emirates Stadium in Glasgow from 9-12 April and sees valuable qualification points for Rio 2016 up for grabs, he said it was wonderful to welcome another high profile tournament to the city.
“It’s a major event. It’s the first time in 20 years that we’ve hosted it but we’ve shown with the Commonwealth Games and the two European Opens here in Glasgow that we can host major events. I’m sure this will be a great success, just like Glasgow 2014.”
With some of the top judo nations absent from the Commonwealth, there were some who tried to undermine the record haul of medals at the Games. But Millar says that despite a number of the elite players retiring, there are still plenty who can ram home the quality of the homegrown talent when they turn out for Great Britain against the best in Europe. Although, nothing can be taken for granted, he warned.
“Every single person that fought in the Commonwealth Games for Scotland had been a World Cup medallist or European medallist and the standard was very high,” he added.
“At the Europeans, you’ll see a top level of competition – the Russians and French are top dogs at the moment and every other nation has five or six decent players. But, at a major championships, anything can happen. I’ve seen Olympic champions lose in the first round in their first tournament back – just because you’re a world-class player doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to win.
“We have a strong team – Sally Conway and a few judokas who are English but train up here like Colin Oates and Gemma Gibbons.”
Still obsessed with the sport Millar is now helping the next generation and is enjoying the fact there has been a swell in interest since the headline-grabbing achievements at the Commonwealth Games in the summer.
“I’m coaching kids at my own club – Just Judo in Midlothian and Edinburgh. For a minority sport like judo, the fantastic exposure we had from the Commonwealth Games has seen every club increase their members. We’ve had 60-70 new members and we’re a relatively small club compared to others.”
And while Scottish women are now dominating after so many of the top men retired in the wake of last summer’s highs, he says there is more talent working its way up through the age groups. “We have a great bunch of talent aged between 17-22. Neil MacDonald has been European cadet bronze medallist for two years in a row and he’s just won the British junior title and is one to watch. We have three or four boys at a similar level and from the age of ten they have seen some of us achieve success and, when they see it happening to someone they know, it spurs them on.”
Life has recently reminded everyone in the judo community to make the most of any opportunities that come their way as fortunes can quickly change.
Welsh judoka Jamie MacDonald made it to the last 16 at Millar’s weight at Glasgow 2014 but, aged just 24, he has just been diagnosed with cancer.
“He’s a lovely guy so it was devastating news when I heard,” said Millar. “In July/August, he was competing at the Commonwealth Games and now he has an inoperable brain tumour. What can you say to that? It’s awful. It makes you take stock and see what’s important in your life. There is a charity page for people to support him and he’s built up a bucket list of what he wants to do in case the worst happens.”