GB's judo gem: Howell wins biggest battle after injury and prepares for London debut
21:30 GMT, 30 July 2012
Nine months ago, Gemma Howell lay on the judo mat in agony, subjected to physical and mental torture. Going through her head were the words, ‘Not again.’
She knew instantly that her right knee had just experienced the same searing pain as her left had a year earlier. That meant another anterior cruciate ligament injury — at the worst possible time.
‘Someone tapped me on the leg and it just went,’ she says. ‘It was panic. I thought straight away, “It can’t be…” But it felt too similar to my first injury to not be.
Brave Brit: Gemma Howell (in white) has recovered from two serious injuries to make the Olympics
‘I was lying on my back crying my eyes out. Initially it was the pain but afterwards it was the worry. I knew it was a year to the Games and obviously it’s such a long road to recovery.’
On Tuesday, Howell, one of Sportsmail’s Magnificent Seven talents, reaches the end of that road and begins the path to Olympic fulfilment. The 22-year-old fights Gevrise Emane, from France, in the -63kg class at the ExCeL at 9.37am.
Emane is the world and European champion, so Howell will have to summon an immense effort to progress and be involved in the final at 4pm. But just being here is a testament to her strength of character.
She only began full training in March, after surgery and months of rehabilitation, and was immediately thrown into a race against time to qualify for London.
Howell had to convince selectors she was worth picking by winning her first major competition back, the British Open on May 12. Victory or home, they told her.
Rough and tumble: Gemma Howell
A grand prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, was fitted in as a sharpener but the rustiness fell away quicker than expected and Howell walked away with bronze. Then on judgement day at the K2 centre in Crawley a week later, she did as she had been asked.
‘There was a lot of pressure riding on that competition, but I figured I’ll have to deal with pressure at the Olympics,’ she says. ‘I got told I had to win it. So it was a good feeling when I did.’
Since then Howell has entered three more tournaments — and won them all. ‘I’m quite pleased with how they’ve gone,’ she says with a smile that belies the understatement.
Her success has barely been credible. She says: ‘I’ve progressed in every one — doing so many in such a short space of time, I’ve made up for the ones I missed while I was out.’
Which brings us to what exactly happened while she was out. How, after nine months off the mat in 2010 through cruciate ligament injury, did she find the resolve to do it all again With a little help from man’s best friend, she confesses.
‘I got Roxy, my yellow Labrador, when I did my first knee and when I was coming back I’d walk her and teach her to give me a high five. This time my dad Peter has kept her in the Midlands (Howell moved from Telford in Shropshire to train at the British Judo Institute in Dartford four years ago) and I would talk to him while he was walking her. So she’s had her uses again.’
Once a scan had determined the exact nature of her injury, Howell was operated on within 24 hours.
‘They took a hamstring graft to replace the cruciate ligament,’ she says. ‘Now I’ve got the two indestructible knees!’
Then came the hours of solitary rehab.
‘Everything that my physio or strength and conditioning coach told me to do I just did, religiously. A lot of it was by myself, so it’s hard to have that motivation, but I had to keep seeing what I was doing it for.
Up against it: Howell has a tough opening match but believes she can win a medal
‘Even before I could do any leg stuff I was on the mat with my judo kit doing gripping, then gradually introduced turns on the knee.
‘It was a big challenge building my confidence back, particularly because I had the time pressure, I couldn’t afford any set-backs.’
Howell draws on an inspirational figure to answer the question of what she can achieve at London.
‘I saw Kelly Holmes win in Athens, when she had her eyes popping out of her head. Since then I’ve read her autobiography and know how many injuries she’s had and the difficult path she had to get there. I’ve dreamed of being an Olympic champion for as long as I can remember. I think, on my day, I could win it. You’ve got to believe that you can otherwise you’ve got no chance.’
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