Day 1 of Competition
The atmosphere and unity of the squad has been superb leading up to this event, with National Coach, Willie Thomas and Assistant Coach, Paul Newby clearly respected and popular with all the competitors. Many though are making the big leap from being juniors and nothing can prepare them for the quality of the opponents they were to face of the sheer emotional intensity of an event like this. This first day of the European Championships saw English fighters not quite managing to reproduce the form they showed in pre-training.
First events were the Kata individual events. Jonathan Mottram showed his world top ten ranking by sailing through into the semi-finals, where he met current World Champion, the legendary Luca Valdesi. Jon's performance was brilliant, so it is difficult to choose which was best, but the referees went for Valdesi. Jon is in the repechage final for the Bronze Medal on Sunday.
Our Junior World Bronze medallist, Emma Lucraft, lost a closely split decision in the third round, to a girl who then narrowly lost to Spain, so no repechage place. Kata has been one of the real success stories of the EKF and both our entrants did us proud!
It is difficult to describe the standard of the competition our athletes have faced at these championships. We saw Aaron Swales' confident demeanour change completely when he saw what they were up against. Still, the standard of Karate is very high in so many countries that we have to be at the peak of elite performance in order to even compete, so this event has been useful learning for this largely inexperienced team. One of our referees, Billy Brennan, spoke to the competitors about what was required to score points and this was very well received.
Nerves are always a big problem in an event of this magnitude. Aaron Swales was first up to fight and performed brilliantly initially going 3-0 up against his German opponent, only to lose after some unfortunate lapses of concentration. Aaron has shown he is real prospect for the future.
Kerry Gunn got through the first round on a bye, but lost to a strong opponent from Germany. Kerry did not give up and fought bravely right to the last second.
Next up was one of our real prospects for a medal, former Junior World Champion Katie Hurry. Shortly after the start of the fight, it was 0-0 and her Croatian opponent tried a 'sweep' and fell with her whole body weight on Katie's knee from the side. Katie was clearly in agony, but she is very determined and no stranger to injuries and showed incredible bravery by trying not once, but twice to continue. This was in vain and the fight had to be stopped. Afterwards, her knee was very swollen indeed, she was on crutches as unable to walk and our Physio, Mo Surdar, was applying ice packs every two hours. We all hope that this injury is not as serious as it seems and the whole England squad has been affected by this unfortunate occurrence.
Another disappointing result was the 1st round battle between Alton Brown, another real medal hope, and his opponent from Germany. The German was a lot taller, very rangy and had a fantastic front hand. He scored on Alton, Alton came back, the German scored again and yet again Alton fought back to equalise. The German scored a third and Alton was unable to retrieve the bout, which was a truly enjoyable one if one doesn't consider the result! The German went on to the semi-final to lose to the current European Champion, Bussa of Italy, who has previously beaten Rafael Aghayev, so no repechage. Shame.
Jordan Thomas did not get a good start, with lapses of concentration against his Slovenian opponent that cost him the fight. Every bout at this level is like a competition final and no-one can allow themselves the luxury of not being on top form right from the start.
Our third real medal hope for today was Natalie Williams, World Bronze medallist. Natalie had a fantastic first fight against a Czech opponent, where she hit her with a front kick, followed by a double roundhouse kick to the head, finally winning 5-0. Awesome! Next fight was against a big and awkward Bosnian opponent. The Bosnian was nothing like as good as Natalie, but threw a lot of techniques, none of which looked like scoring. At the final bell, neither girl had managed to score, but under the new rules, there is now no extension and the referee and judges simply choose a winner. There were 3 flags to 2 to the Bosnian, probably not winning on ability, but on work rate.
Natalie was clearly angry with herself afterwards and many of the competitors were disappointed that they had not performed to their potential. Even Paul Newby's hat during dinner wasn't enough to lighten the mood. When challenged over this rather garish piece of gentlemen's millinery, he explained that he needed to protect his head after suffering slight sunburn the previous day, though why he needed to wear it indoors after sundown was lost on all present.
Carla Burkitt was another newcomer finding the jump from junior to senior a big one. She fought against her Portuguese opponent without a coach as Willie had left his pass on another area. There were so many events today that the coaches were very busy. Carla is very good and it seemed as if she lost the bout psychologically, rather than to a better opponent.
Chris Harris is another great fighter who had an unlucky first bout. He was sharp, confident and his timing was impeccable. He was winning 2-0 and never looked like being beaten, when his Ukrainian opponent scored a questionable point after what looked like a lapse of concentration. The bout went on and the Ukrainian scored a kick to the back for 2 points and Chris just couldn't pull it back.
Emily Griffiths is another newcomer to this level and is hampered by seemingly being the smallest in her category. The coaches worked on this a lot in pre-training and her movement improved so much that she became hard to hit by anyone. Her Italian opponent had much more reach and simply beat Emily to the punch twice and despite gamely fighting hard, she couldn't get the deficit back.
After the days results were considered and the squad was a little subdued. They didn't even notice the largest cockroach ever seen, or they simply thought it was a passing Shetland pony. The scene in Jaws where Roy Scheider says, "We need a bigger boat" springs to mind. The evening ended with a truly inspiring speech from Willie Thomas that really lifted their spirits. They are going to need it; the first team bout tomorrow for the men's team is against the old enemy, France. The girls are up against Romania, though they are weakened by not having Katie present.
All in all, a disappointing day, but the talent that England possesses in the cream of our elite competitors was nonetheless very visible.