Host of TASS athletes head to Minsk for European Games
Sally Conway celebrates winning the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)
The second European Games takes centre stage in Belarus this month and 12 current and former TASS athletes will be flying the flag for dual careers. We caught up with a rising star and a veteran campaigner ahead of Minsk 2019.
Nothing beats experience according to Sally Conway. And the 32-year-old veteran of two Olympic Games should know. In fact, it’s an increasingly potent weapon in her armoury as she heads into this month’s European Games in Minsk – the latest staging post on the road to Tokyo 2020. “When I was transitioning from junior to senior judo the biggest challenge I faced was compensating for a lack of experience,” said Conway, who received TASS support as a teenager during her time at Bisham Abbey in the noughties.
“I had the skill but that wasn’t always enough against some of the more experienced opponents I came up against. And these days I use that in my favour! When you’re starting out in the senior ranks you just don’t have the mental capacity to get the wins all of the time. Now, when I face a younger opponent, I use all of my experience to gain an advantage. But I’m always looking over my shoulder at the young athletes coming through!”
If there is little room for sentiment in elite sport then Conway is, nevertheless, keen to encourage the next generation of British judoka. At a time when the domestic talent pool appears reassuringly deep, one of the sport’s most famous faces is excited for the future.
“British judo is in a very healthy position right now,” she added. “There have been a number of girls who’ve come through in the last couple of years. As a nation we are making our mark on the Grand Prix circuit and in world and European championship events at various age groups.
“The overall level within the UK has gone up massively. It’s really positive as we look ahead to the World Championships and the 2020 Olympics.
“I see plenty of young talent coming through. There are girls who are consistently winning junior events on the world stage and, most importantly, they’re enjoying it. But it’s one thing being the best in your age category and another translating that success to senior judo. Hopefully that will happen and I know it can.
“My advice to anyone coming through and aspiring to represent their country at senior level is to ensure that you still enjoy judo as much as the day you started. I still do. But I learnt how important that was just before the Rio Olympics – if you really enjoy what you’re doing then you’re more likely to perform at your best. Don’t rush things – you have plenty of time to achieve your goals. Be open to new approaches and experiences and never stop learning.”
It’s a mantra that Conway’s Great Britain team-mate, Tin-Tin Ho, can relate to. The 20-year-old table tennis star is only just starting out on her senior international journey after winning a place at the European Games. And the TASS-supported medical student sees Minsk 2019 as an invaluable opportunity to broaden her sporting education.
Tin-Tin Ho competes alongside Liam Pitchford at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (Credit: REUTERS/Jeremy Lee)
“I don’t have a specific goal in terms of where I want to finish in Belarus – I’m just going over there to play the best table tennis that I can,” explained the Nottingham University undergraduate. “There will be so many senior players who are far more experienced than me. I’ll have played against a few of them in the past but not in a tournament on this level.
“Every match will be very hard but I look at it in a positive way. The top players will be from Romania and Germany but most nations have at least one leading player. This is my first Games so it’s very much a learning experience – in one way there’s not as much pressure as I’m not one the highest ranked players. But, on the other hand, I’ll be up against it in every match.”
As a current TASS athlete, Tin-Tin is better placed than most to identify the value of targeted support for those elite sportsmen and women attempting to juggle academic commitments with daily training and regular competition. And as she nears the end of her first year at medical school the unique challenges facing dual career athletes have never been in sharper focus.
“I’m really enjoying studying,” she added. “The work is difficult and often quite intense but I love the challenge. I’m in the best situation possible to ensure I can achieve my academic and sporting goals. The university staff are extremely understanding and my coaches recognise that I have a heavy academic workload. It’s a close community and Nottingham is home to a number of elite athletes in full-time education so the support is fantastic.
“Mentally switching between my university work and table tennis can be tough and trying to play as many tournaments as possible – at the same time as attending all of my lectures – is a challenge. But I try to keep on top of both. It’s just a different way of life and something that I’ll have to get used to.
“The support I receive from TASS is invaluable. I’ve had some excellent lifestyle advice at a time when things are changing fast for me as an athlete and a student.
“The TASS specialists help me stay sane! And the financial assistance is very welcome – trying to fund everything myself would be incredibly difficult.”
Fifteen years down the line and Conway still points to TASS support as key to enabling her to gain the international experience required to compete for Olympic medals, Grand Prix glory and a place on the podium at the European Games. “I remember my dad filling in the form at a time when TASS was still relatively new,” she added. “The financial support I received as a teenager enabled me to travel to training camps and competitions overseas and start to build up the experience I lacked. It helped massively at that stage of my career.”
In 2019 Conway has maintained her position as Britain’s foremost 70 kg judoka but the Bristol-born athlete has already set her sights on what would be a famous swansong.
“A few weeks after Minsk there’s a big Grand Prix event in Croatia and then the focus turns to the World Championships in Tokyo in August,” she added. “For the Japanese it’s a dry run for the Olympics and we’ll be using the Nippon Budokan.
“It’s where the Olympic tournament will take place and I visited it earlier this year. It gave me goosebumps to think I could be back there in 2020 competing in the home of judo. It would be incredible to be part of the games in Tokyo – if I make it then it’s probably going to be my last Olympics but what a place to sign off in!”
Tokyo 2020 might come too soon for Tin-Tin but Minsk ushers in a big 12 months for the diminutive star. “The European Games are still very new to the international calendar and it’s great for table tennis to be included. Every big tournament is a boost for the sport’s profile and from a personal point of view I need more experience of senior international table tennis. The goal for any table tennis player is the Olympics Games but outside of that we don’t get many opportunities to be part of a multi-sport games.
“I have a big few months coming up after Minsk. The World University Games take place in Naples next month and I’m hoping to be in contention for the Commonwealth Championships after that. I’m taking a gap year and relocating to Austria again – I was there for a year in 2018 and it was hugely beneficial in terms of my table tennis. I’m hoping for the same again.”
*The European Games take place in Minsk, Belarus, from June 21-30.
The TASS-supported athletes set to represent Team GB are:
Lauren SMITH – 09/10
Ben WHITTAKER (-81kg) – 15/16
Jess ROBERTS – 07/08
Ashley McKENZIE (-60kg) – 07/08
Chelsie GILES (-52kg) – 14/15
Sally CONWAY (-70kg) – 05/06
Kristian CALLAGHAN – 09/10, 10/11, 11/12, 12/13, 13/14, 14/15, 15/16, 16/17, 18/19
Sam GOWIN – 17/18, 18/19
Paul DRINKHALL – 05/06, 10/11
Tin-Tin HO – 16/17, 18/19
Liam PITCHFORD – 09/10, 10/11, 11/12
Samuel WALKER – 10/11