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'Yawara-chan' legend to live on for 6 more years

Jeremy Walker
Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter

FUKUOKA -- After two near misses, Ryoko Tamura would have every reason to bow out of international judo after the Sydney Olympics.

If she won the gold medal, her career would be complete, adding the glory to the power which has already earned her four world championships in the lightest weight division, under-48 kilograms.

If she lost along the way, then no one could blame her for putting away her judogi once and for all and accepting that, after defeats in the final at both Barcelona and Atlanta, Olympic gold simply was not meant to be.

But Tamura, in characteristically fighting style, will have none of this.

"No, this is not my last chance," she states calmly but defiantly.

"I've already decided that I'm going to keep going for another five to six years. I want to compete until I'm 30, so that means I'll still be around for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"I'm still enjoying myself, so there's no thought of retiring.

"And I want to win that gold medal. I'll continue to fight until I win the gold...I will get it."

Now 24, Tamura has been one of Japan's most popular and durable athletes of the decade, ever since winning the first of her 10 consecutive titles in front of her hometown fans at the Fukuoka International Women's Judo Championships in 1990.

Standing just 1.46 meters, she's Japan's very own pocket monster of the tatami, a smaller-than-life character whose favorite word is "smile" and whose career has created the legend of "Yawara-chan," a comic book heroine after whom Tamura was named following that first Fukuoka victory as a 15-year-old high school girl.

"It was the hairstyle that started it," she says, laughing, while in the nearby lobby of the Fukuoka Kokusai Center fans queue up to buy Tamura-designed "Yawara-chan" T-shirts and other merchandise.

"I had a ribbon in the top of my hair, just like Yawara-chan. And I had won a gold medal, just like Yawara-chan; so one of the journalists wrote that the success of Miss Tamura was like a story out of a comic book. The nickname stuck, and I'm very happy with it."

On the mat, Tamura is a loosely-wrapped but tightly-focussed bundle of aggression and intensity, a "dynamo," according to her great rival from Cuba, the towering, 1.59-meter Amarilis Savon, whose head-to-head record now stands at 0-12 after their latest encounter, in the Fukuoka final on Dec. 12.

Off the mat, her energy and vitality continue to shine through as she waves extravagantly to the fans, another bouquet of flowers in one hand, another trophy in the other on one more lap of honor. Then she'll stop, bow politely to a judo official she recognizes from some distant leg of her world tour, and continue her victory march.

Above her in the stands, some 6,500 fans salute the hometown girl, cameras flashing and banners, complete with Yawara-chan cartoon characters and messages, decorating the hall.

The proudest of them all is her mother Kazuyo, although the pride is tempered by the fear factor, an understandable situation for the parent of an exponent of a martial art which can be spectacular, violent and spectacularly violent.

"When I first started playing judo (at eight years old), my mother wasn't happy because she said it was a sport for boys, too dangerous," recalls Tamura.

"I think it's because the first time we went to watch a training session, one boy broke his arm; but my father encouraged me to play. I also had a brother who was three years older than me, and I thought it would be cool to throw boys around the mat."

For the most part, Tamura has been invincible, compiling an incredible 129-4 win-loss ratio since her landmark 1990 triumph at Fukuoka.

The only trouble is, two of those four losses have come in the gold medal bouts at the Olympics, to France's Cecile Nowak in 1992 and to unheralded North Korean Kye Sun Hi four years later at Atlanta in one of the biggest shocks in Olympic judo history.

Following that loss to Kye, who moved up a weight following her victory, never to be seen again at bantamweight, Tamura thought long and hard about her future.

"I wanted to win the gold medal at Atlanta so much but I did not make it," she recalls.

"When I came back to Japan, I couldn't face putting on my judogi and going through the hard training all over again. I quit...but for only two months."

Two things made her change her mind: The Fukuoka international at the end of 1996, and the memory of a conversation with Britain's former four-time world under-48 kilogram champion, Karen Briggs, some years earlier.

"I wanted to win the Fukuoka tournament for a seventh time, and I also remember Karen Briggs advising me never to give up as long as I was enjoying it. She told me to just concentrate on competing all the time," says Tamura.

Briggs and Tamura first squared off in Fukuoka in 1990, when Tamura beat the reigning world champion in the semifinals on her way to gold.

Briggs, a five-time Fukuoka champion between 1983-88 and who retired in 1992, recalls the meeting well.

"I was approaching 30 years old at the time and I think Tamura had watched me compete at Fukuoka before that when she was very young; I was a bit of an inspiration to her," said Briggs, now married with two children and preaching the judo gospel in schools near her hometown of Hull.

"I found we were very similar in that the most important thing is determination. It's all right being good, but if you haven't got the determination to carry on then you won't be successful."

As for Tamura's plan to compete until she's 30, Briggs added: "Your body tells you when it's had enough, and in my case I was always a bit afraid I would get an injury that I wouldn't recover from. I wanted to live the rest of my life, basically.

"I didn't start playing judo until I was 12, so I'd been competing at the top for 14 years when I retired.

"In Japan, though, they start much earlier because it's a national sport, and I hope Tamura doesn't run out of steam because it does take its toll.

"I must admit when I've seen her recently she's tending to slow down a little bit, which is only natural because if you don't you would be a robot."

Daily Yomiuri, January 01, 2000

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