But the aikidoka that stepped on the mats at our first session was a world away from the aikidoka stepping foot on the mat in Brisbane at the very first WSAF world championships. How is it you ask that such a change happens in such a short space of time?
I had first met the squad managers and its members as a beginner, at one of the BAA schools. (South of the River). I had attended as an orange belt. I had no competition experience ; I had no idea of the world championships. They had seemed so elite , so out of my reach.
Several BAA schools and important introductions later we were invited to our first squad session and after that we were hooked. Training with the best team in the world who can get enough? I had no expectations. It was an odd experience, we weren't treated any differently than any other aikdioka on the mat but yet we had no experience. Everyone else in the UK takes this for granted, the invite to attend and the ability to qualify for a world championships. We had no aspirations of going to a worlds at that time. I remembered thinking to myself that it was far beyond our reach. Only the elite compete at a world championship. After a couple a months though, the question was asked. Are you going to Australia, would you consider Australia. It's a very unique feeling. To go from feeling out of your depth to feeling like you belong, like you could contribute to the team in such a short space of time. I envy those who train in the UK who have access to this all the time. From the very beginning they haveve access to some of the best aikidoka in the world. They can train with the best team in the world whenever they want with relatively little planning.
We only travelled from across the water but there was so much more involved than a flight. If it weren't for the kindness of squad managers Laura ,who kindly opened her home to us and Paul who drove us to the sessions we never would have been able to attend. If it weren't for them we would never have been able to go to squad. Something I think those from the UK take for granted.
It is an honour and a privelege to train with the best in the world. For over a year we committed to flying on a Saturday night after training our kids, then straight to the airport. Arrive late to the UK stay the night. Early start for the drive to the new and improved premises of the judo centre of excellence. Train Sunday with squad then with the exception of a couple of weekends stay Sunday night to fly home at 6am Monday morning and go straight to work.
While everyone involved in squad knows the meaning of sacrifice. Most take for granted the ability to attend.
I will take many things from the experience of our first world championships.
The dedication it takes. The focus that's required. The expectation that comes with being part of a team. But what many will not take from it, is the kindness of strangers. Something that I'd never truly come across until our squad sessions. We may all be addicted to aikido but to the rest of the team, we were strangers. But we weren't treated as such. We were accepted with everyone else, all those willing to come along and train and put in the effort were given equal attention. It was not how I had perceived it to be at all. It’s all about a strong work ethic.
I can't describe to you what it takes to commit to a world championship. Every person who is part of the team does so for their own reasons. I can only tell you my motivation and what it took from me. My motivation? Initially I'll be honest, it was not to take part in a world championships. It was to improve at the art I love so much. What better way to exceed than to surround yourself with those to drive themselves toward excellence. But guess what. That attitude is contagious. Before long it was all we could focus on. We boarded our flight one miserable Monday morning. Aching from the session the day before but the pain was eased by the sense of accomplishment. We were improving every session. It’s peculiar to feel so positive despite the lack of sleep. We had fielded the same questions as the last couple of months now, would we consider Australia , are we going etc. I thought to myself for the first time, why can't we compete? Why aren't we going to Australia?
It was no longer a case where I thought that we weren't good enough to make the team. I now had the self belief to think that we could take part in a meaningful way. It was the only conversation we had about going. That was it, I'd decided then that we were going to Brisbane.
The commitment, the travel , the training. It took much more of a toll than expected. We ran club 3 days a week, trained juniors , youths and adults toward grading. We had full time jobs and zero time for a social life. Which is a good thing really because all of our expendable income was spent on aiki trips. As it drew to an end we had our last squad session, the time for sweat and dedication has passed and now it was time to announce the teams. This was it.
Such a short time ago I had seen the squad with their kit at south of the river thinking it was beyond my reach. Here we are, the first Irish team to be named as part of the BAA Squad for an international competition. It filled me with pride. I am now part of the elite. There are so few who will get to have this honour, fewer still who will be from another country. We had been accepted so totally and here we are putting on the jersey with the team who've come to know and accept us so freely.
Finally in August 2015 we stepped off the plane in Brisbane, Australia for the SAF Aikido world championships. The first Irish pair to take part, and proud members of the BAA team.
To step on the mat that morning, the first morning of my first aikido world championships. It was worth every second. Every morning I didn't want to get up to go to the gym , every evening I didn't want to go training. Every moment that I wanted to give up or take a break or let someone else pick up the slack. It had all come down to this moment. To represent the BAA at an international comp. It was an amazing experience. You only get to experience your first international comp once and let me tell you, there's nothing that can describe that feeling. There's no more work can be done. This is it. This was our chance to compete against some of the best aikidoka in the world.
In the end the BAA were the most successful team there. Not just because of the incredibly successful medal haul, because of the team support it brought with it. Despite the lack of a medal for us as a pair it was a really successful competition as with any competition you learn so much and can take so much from it win or lose. For me, I started this whole journey with a goal to get better. That is all I ever want. When we stepped out on the mats in Brisbane, we were a different pair to those that started this journey.
Thanks to the time and input from all those that attended squad sessions. When it was all over, we raised our flag to take photos as the first Irish pair at a world championships. Within moments members of squad flooded around us to get in the picture. A moment I will take with me forever. I first had the honour of being named part of the BAA national team and then I had the honour of it's members support us in our celebration. We may not have won any medals this time. But we've achieved, what many thought (including me) impossible. To be the first Irish pair attending a world championships and to truly be accepted as part of the BAA team.
I would have never thought I would be here. Writing about my first world championships. I'm still just an aikidoka that wants to learn and strives to be better. I hope we all are. My initial motivation still remains. It will always remain. Squad has given me the belief to set our sights higher. Nothing is out of reach. Nothing is impossible. So if like me once upon a time you thought making team was out of reach, please, take a chance. You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.