The Olympic Games are nearly upon us. Athletes, broadcasters and fans have waited 1,808 days for the Games to recommence, the longest interval in the post-war era. For many athletes this has been an arduous and uncertain wait but Amy Connell, a Team GB karate athlete, is just delighted to see her sport showcase itself on the biggest stage of all.
“In 2016 when we found out [that karate would be at the Olympics] that became the new biggest goal for everyone in karate,” says the 26-year-old. “We were all so excited to see it on the bigger scale. A multi-sport event like the Olympics is just the pinnacle of sport for any athlete to compete at.”
Karate’s roots can be traced back to Okinawa, Japan. So, it is very fitting the sport makes its Olympic debut at the Nippon Budokan, the spiritual home of Japanese martial arts. Connell’s father Terry, formerly president of British Karate, played a pivotal role in the sport being a part of this year’s event.
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“It was a long process, but it was great to see my dad so passionate about karate for so long, so when that [karate being confirmed as an Olympic sport] got the all clear it was so nice to see his hard work pay off and leave a legacy for karate and the younger generations.”
Her karate journey so far
With a father so involved in karate, and a mother and sister also practicing, the young Scot fell into the sport almost from birth and quickly picked up a passion for it. She began learning karate aged three and started competing in kumite, a form of karate where two athletes face each other in a fight, aged nine. She had instant success too. In her first tournament representing Scotland she won a medal at the Junior European Championships when she was just 14.
“That will always be important to me as it was the first one I had ever been to and represented Scotland at. But I always say that it sets you up for a tougher journey because you then always think you should do well.”
After flying out the blocks as a junior, success in her adult career had to wait. In 2014, in the buildup to the World Championships, her rigorous training and competition schedule caught up with her.
An increased focus on plyometric jumps and other explosive training meant she developed nine stress fractures in each leg. She initially thought they were shin splints and competed at the Championships, but the morning after lasting five rounds at the tournament she woke up and could not walk. An X-ray that day confirmed her worst nightmare.
She spent two months in a wheelchair, and two years on the side-lines. She had to re-learn to walk and build her strength back up from scratch. It looked unlikely she would ever compete again.
“My mindset was probably the one thing that got me through. I had good people around me and I worked on it so much which definitely made me a better athlete now. I probably took a lot for granted before.”
After a long layoff and graduating from the University of Strathclyde in Sports Science, she quickly found herself back on the podium. Fighting in the –55kg category, Connell claimed a silver medal in a K1 event in Paris in 2017 and a bronze at the 2019 European Karate Championships in Guadalajara, Spain.
Later on, in 2019 she became the first Scot to represent Team GB in karate at a major multi-sport event, being selected for the European Games in Minsk.
“It was just unbelievable. I was like a little kid, just excited to be there, and so proud to be there as I know it was something I had been working towards since I was really young. It gave me a little taste of what it would be like at the Olympics.”
That Olympic dream could soon be fulfilled as qualification events restart in Istanbul this week, after a year-long hiatus, and will climax with an event in Paris from 11th to 13th June 2021. Performing well in Paris will secure a qualification spot at this summer’s Olympics, the only time Karate is planned to feature at the Games.
Connell has managed to maintain a good routine throughout the last year despite COVID-19, combining her Arbonne business with training. She has adapted her training methods to limit the likelihood a recurrence of those stress fractures by replacing long distance running and heavy impact training with cycling and hydrotherapy. A home dojo installed by her parents when she was just 14 has proved incredibly useful, as has her mother’s willingness to assist with training.
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Connell’s role as an ambassador for karate
Of equal importance to Connell is her role in assisting with the continued growth of karate and other combat sports in Britain. According to an Active Lives Survey, commissioned by Sport England, 100,000 more females were participating in combat sports and martial arts between May 2019-2020 than between May 2016-17, taking the total number to 380,700.
Connell believes the sport’s governing bodies can, and should, always do more to promote karate and she places a great deal of emphasis on her own role in helping promote the sport’s profile.
“One of my main things is to be a good female ambassador for karate and let people know that it is a sport that anyone can do, especially girls. The old stigma was that it was a masculine sport, but I do feel that has changed a lot with social media coverage.
“We have got some amazing females in Britain now, some great ambassadors that can prove it is a sport for females and for guys and I do think that the uptake in karate has grown a lot in the last few years.
“It’s a great combat sport and there are a lot of females out there now that are showing that it is for absolutely everyone.”
Connell believes more television coverage of major events would go a long way in enhancing the sport’s image within the public conscience and is eager to focus on giving back to the sport that has given her so much.
“I grew up and had people showing me what was possible [within karate]. My dad was my first coach, and I would love to do that for other people.”
Feature image credit: Amy Connell