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Clark's career comes full circle with glorious golden swansong

SCOTLAND has not lost its mojo at the dojo.

Sarah Clark, in white, takes on Helene Wezeu Dombeu of Cameroon at the SECC yesterday en route to winning gold for Scotland. Picture: Colin Mearns
Sarah Clark, in white, takes on Helene Wezeu Dombeu of Cameroon at the SECC yesterday en route to winning gold for Scotland. Picture: Colin Mearns

After two golds, one silver and three bronze on day one of the competition, yesterday it was the turn of Sarah Clark, a 36-year-old who left South Shields for a junior training camp in Edinburgh some 18 years ago and never came back, to complete the hat trick of Scottish judo golds.

No sooner had she outwitted her younger, thicker-set opponent Helene Wezeu Dombeu of Cameroon in the -63kg category final than she was bowing reverentially to all four sides of this SECC arena, and promptly hanging up her judogi, competitively at least, for the last time. So efficiently, unflinchingly, had she progressed through her three contests here that it was hard to credit the fact that at times in the last two years she had been racked with self-doubts, as she battled back from a double ankle break and a demoralising first-round exit at the London Olympics. Even the four-hour stretch between semi-final and final had literally been spent lying in a darkened room.

As a judoka who prides herself on her stamina and conditioning, she had feared that a January rule change cutting the length of bouts in women's judo from five to four minutes would work against her. As it was, she had her final opponent bewildered and beaten on the floor within just 77 seconds.

"Retirement isn't the word I like to use but I will step away from competitive judo now and I've got lots of other things I want to do, and places I want to go, with judo," said Clark afterwards. "Even if I wanted to compete for two more years my body wouldn't hold out.

"Straight after London, in the November, I had double ankle surgery," she added. "I was sitting down for two-and-a-half weeks when I couldn't even walk and things are always constantly there from my finger and hand surgery.

"I knew I couldn't constantly reach the highs of fitness of three or four years ago but I've trained really smart for the last 10 months and it has really come together."

An erratic kind of destiny has brought Clark's career full circle. A former British and European Champion who has competed in three Olympic games, she freely admits she might not have been so driven to compete in Glasgow if she hadn't had such a rude awakening against Automne Pavia of France at London 2012, but the first and last medals of her career have been earned for her adopted country at the Commonwealths. "I only came up here for one week as a junior, when training for the junior world championships," she said. "That was 18 years ago and I have been here ever since. I'm glad I stayed."

Her silver from Manchester in 2002 came from a judo competition in which Scots claimed no fewer than 10 medals. As of yesterday, with one day to go, Team Scotland already has eight under its collective belt. No wonder the Glasgow 2014 organising committee were so keen to reinstate this brutal, unforgiving martial art - so misleadingly named after the Japanese words 'gentle way' - to the Commonwealth roster.

No greater illustration of that truism came in the contrasting fortunes of two of Clark's clubmates from the Edinburgh Judo Club. With Clark still in the throes of victory, Patrick Dawson trudged away distraught after his brave efforts to salvage a bronze via the repechage route in the -73kg category were snuffed out by an instant Ippon against Jake Bensted of Australia.

Instead, Scotland's eighth judo medal was delivered, after a little additional drama, by Sally Conway. The feisty wee 27-year-old Bristolian with the braids in her hair who moved to Edinburgh nine years ago had gone into the women's -63kg weight category as one of the favourites by dint of her No.6 world ranking. She gave eventual winner Megan Fletcher a bloodied nose in the semi-final, her English opponent requiring numerous attempts to attach an unwieldy bandage across her injured nose, only to lose narrowly by two yukos to one in the 'golden score' period.

But any disappointment she felt had almost entirely evaporated by the time she clinched bronze against Sunibala Huidrom, a tense, no-scoring contest being settled by the three shidos, or penalties, accrued by her Indian opponent. At the conclusion Conway simply lay on her opponent, a smile of relief drawn across her face as the crowd counted down to the buzzer.

"I just had to get my head in a good place again," said Conway. "One of my dreams is to become Commonwealth champion and once you lose that semi-final fight there is no chance of that happening.

"But I knew that if it wasn't going to be the gold it had to be the bronze, so I will take that bronze for Team Scotland, Judo Scotland and the Scottish crowd. I 100% consider myself a Scot. When I heard the crowd counting I knew I was nearly on the home straight. I just thought hold on, don't do anything."

While Jerusalem was also heard regularly in recognition of the efforts of Fletcher, Danny Wilson and Oliver Livesey, Scotland's judo team continues to fly the flag, with another big day forecast today with the heavyweights.

It is somehow fitting that Clark has pledged to spend the first day of her "retirement" getting here at 8am to cheer the m on.

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