Stuart McWatt may still be only 26 years old but already, he’s had enough injuries to last a lifetime.

Not one, not two but three ruptured ACLs – widely accepted to be one of the worst injuries in sport – as well as a dislocated shoulder would be more than sufficient to break mere mortals.

But McWatt, fortunately, is made of stronger stuff than most.

Long regarded as one of Scotland’s brightest judo talents, McWatt has now recovered from his third ACL injury – one that ensured he missed last summer’s Commonwealth Games – and he’s feeling as good, if not better, than ever.

His recent run of fitness, and form, is just reward for a man who has been forced to endure more bad luck than almost anyone else in Scottish sport but he remains refreshingly unbitter about his bad fortunes.

“I dislocated my shoulder not long after things started up following the pandemic. I recovered from that but in my first competition back, I did my ACL. So it was pretty unlucky,” he says, understatedly.

“When I did my ACL last year, I knew it was going to be a long rehab but when I was injured, I did some coaching courses and was pretty productive off the mat because I knew there was no point moping around about what had happened, I just had to get on with things.”

During his most recent spell on the sidelines, McWatt made the decision to move up in weight class from -81kgs to -90kgs, believing that the increased muscle mass would give more protection to his body.

An extended training block before he returned to the mat in anger earlier this year left him feeling in his best shape ever and quickly, his physical improvements began to show in his results.

In the past month, McWatt has won bronze at the Malaga European Cup as well as gold at the Prague European Open in what was one of the best results of his career.

“These competitions were the first time I felt like I was back to myself. That was a pretty good feeling,” he says.

“It’s so good to be back fighting for medals and it makes up for the hard year of being injured.

“It’s been a confidence thing for me – winning breeds that confidence. Now I’m back to winning fights, doing my style of judo and not worrying about anything else and that’s a good mindset to be going into events with.”

McWatt has clearly recovered physically from his injuries but perhaps even more poignantly, he’s recovered mentally which, all too often, can be the hardest thing to repair after serious injury.

But McWatt has the rare quality of being able to start with a blank slate after each injury he’s suffered.

“I was always confident I’d get back to this level, quietly confident I think,” the Inverurie native says.

“Strangely, I’ve never had the feeling of fear when I’ve got back on the mat. 

“If you go onto the mat doubting anything, you’re going to hesitate and you can’t afford that in this sport – you have to be all-in. 

“My thinking is that if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen so I just need to crack on and try my best to perform.”

The Herald: McWatt (right) has suffered numerous serious injuries but now feels back to his bestMcWatt (right) has suffered numerous serious injuries but now feels back to his best

McWatt’s next challenge is the European Championships, which begin in the French city of Montpellier today.

The Scot has yet to win a major championship medal but few doubt he has the potential to do so at some point in his career.

Succeeding this week will be no easy task – five of the world’s top 10, including the world number one, Luka Maisuradze from Georgia, are in the field – but McWatt is confident that, on his day, he has the beating of any fighter on the planet.

“The Europeans is another level up for me but hopefully I can continue my recent good form,” he says.

“I try not to think too much about winning a medal – if I can just go out there and do my judo to the best of my ability, the results will come. 

“But I have the belief I can beat anyone in the world. On any given day, I believe I can throw the other person, whoever they are. I’ve proven in the past at 81kgs by beating guys in the top ten in the world so now, it’s about proving I can do that at 90kgs and I’m hoping to start that at the Europeans.”

While a European medal is McWatt’s short-term goal, his longer-term target is becoming an Olympian in Paris next summer.

His ACL injury ensured he missed the entire first year of Olympic qualification but with year two of the qualification process weighted heavier than year one, McWatt retains the faith that he can do what only a select group of Scottish judoka has managed in the past and that’s grace the Olympic stage.

He refuses, however, to get caught up in the hype of Olympic qualification no matter how much he desires achieving the final goal.

“I don’t think about the Olympics every day or worry about needing to get points to qualify, I’m just taking it one competition at a time. It’s there as the long-term goal but I need to take things one competition at a time,” he says.

“Getting to the Olympics has been a goal for my whole life, though. 

“I remember as a kid, getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Beijing Olympics in 2008. 

“It’s the dream and it’s what I’ve been training towards for the past decade. So it’s definitely what I’m striving for.”