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 39th European Championships: an unexpected journey (Raj Bhardwaj)

I’ve been asked to reflect upon my first experience as a competitor in a European Championships.

Last Autumn I had the privilege of attending the Lisbon Championships to cheer on my daughter Yasmin, who came home with a Team gold medal (as did her splendid teammates; Jasmine from Hartlepool and Kirstiefrom Worcester). For weeks after the tournament I found myself vividly recalling the moment the judges’ flags went up unanimously for England…and the mental picture of our Yas stood stock still in disbelieving happiness as her sisters bounded up and jumped on her. We could have flown home without the plane.

Whilst I was of course delighted for my little girl (she may be able to kick me in the head before I even notice…but she’ll always be my little girl) I couldn’t help but wonder if I too could train like crazy and get into the England squad that was due to go to Italy for this year’s Championships?

So I started with a tentative discussion with Sensei Connie and Sensei May as I sought their counsel and blessing to attend the monthly England training sessions. I was greeted with sombre but supportive advice suggesting that I would need to lose 5-6 stone in weight just to be in the game. Far more importantly I'd need to get fit...along with the rest of England hopefuls, we were asked to 'dare to be athletes'. Anyone who saw me a year ago would not hurl the adjective 'athlete' in my direction.

In the following months I persuaded a personal trainer to take me on.  To get a baseline I was hooked up to a machine that took lots of measurements (% body fat, % muscle, % water, etc.) which confirmed that I had 50% body fat. A friend burst out laughing and could barely breathewhen I shared this less than encouraging stat: “…so basically Raj, you have the make-up of a pork scratching”.  Funny, unkind, but entirely fair.

It’s safe to say that I gave it everything…playing tennis hard twice a week, lifting weights with my trainer(who is an incredibly tough task master) twice a week and spending lots and lots of time in the dojo (three hour sessions were the norm). In total I was training 10-22 hours a week. At a recent review my trainer confirmed that I’d lost five stone of fat and put on two stone of muscle. This made no sense…I was still fat? “You’re merely fat now…you used to be horribly obese” replied my trainer cheerfully; I think he was trying to be encouraging.

Receiving the news that I’d won selection into the England squad was such a relief. Clutching my badge (with those three precious lions) I wondered around hugging everyone I could find. Better still, training with my fellow squad members was both a privilege and a joy…they’re a great crowd as well as being supremely talented.

It all struck home as much of the squad filtered in from around the country and met at Gatwick to catch the plane to Venice. With our red England jackets on, we looked every inch the united team that we are as we checked in our bags.

Training at the athletes’ village with the rest of the England squad was a focused affair. The England coaches clearly had considerable experience in preparing competitors and whilst they made small refinements to our respective techniques, they largely concentrated on giving encouragement and helped to get our minds right.

Although I was pretty serene up to this point, I barely managed four hours’ sleep on the night before the competition because of the anticipation. So it was a welcome relief to finally be allowed into the arena on the big day. There were five tatami – which competitors streamed onto straight away with a view to start practicing. The England coaches spent time with each of us, ensuring that we knew where and when we would be competing as well as gently coaxing us into the right frame of mind. Sensei May took the time to carefully watch me practice my Kata for a while and patiently helped with one or two refinements. His calm and soothing approach was simply perfect.

Our primary task if we weren’t competing was to support our countrymen…which the whole squad did with aplomb. We literally cheered for England! Indeed, such was the quality of our team that we had a great deal to cheer about.

Speaking of cheering, just after lunch Yasmin started to compete in her Kata competition. Bless her she executed her Katas to perfection…winning gold with a seemingly flawless Kushanku against the Russian who knocked her out of this individual competition last year. It was a cathartic victory on many levels.

Thereafter I kept myself warm by practicing my Kata. The problem was that the Championships were running seriously behind schedule. Having hardly slept and practiced and cheered all day, it was approaching 8pm before I started to compete myself. Walking onto the wonderfully luxurious mats I looked down at my Karate suit and marvelled that I was wearing a badge with three lions. The sheer wonder of it gave me a lift that’s hard to describe. The following half hour is hard to remember…although I can clearly recall a disbelieving moment when three blue flags went up in my favour…and I’d won gold. As I looked at Sensei May, I walked over and buried my head tearfully in his shoulder. Rarely can a coach have had such seemingly meagre raw talent to work with than me a year ago.

The rest of the week is also a blur. Our final evening in Italy descended into a wonderful squad singing and drinking exchange....which included a typically dubious reprise of my Billy Jean rendition and a thoroughly spirited (and utterly tuneless) Eye of the Tiger.

And so I found myself sat in serenity on the plane home; staring at snow-capped mountains from 34,000 feet...mentally pinching myself that I not only have three lions on my Gi, but a European gold medal in the airplane's hold to match my daughter's.

All the same there is so much to improve upon if I'm to win selection again next year and hope to do well. I don’t know about you…but I can't wait for the next competition.