LEE CALDER, coach of TT’s first-ever Olympic-bound female judoka Gabriella Wood (+78kg), credited his student’s impeccable training and work ethic for her success thus far.
The Scottish judo coach has been at the helm of Wood’s development over the past four years and will join her at the Tokyo Games.
The duo, alongside Calder’s son and Wood’s training partner Cailin, leaves their Scotland-base on Monday, en route to Japan for a historic showing for both coach and athlete.
Not only is Wood the first female judoka to represent TT at the Summer Games, but also Calder’s debut as an Olympic coach.
“It’s a great achievement for Gabriella and a big opportunity for me as well. Gabriella is the first judoka to come from my dojo to go the Games.
“So it’s a first time for my dojo, first time for me and first time for Gabriella as well. But she has the right training and work ethic to achieve anything she wants. She has that right frame of mind,” said Calder.
Four years ago, Wood, a rising judoka, travelled to Scotland to visit family. At that time, she had some experience in the sport having battled to silver at the 2015 Pan American Junior Open (Argentina) and bronze at 2016 Junior PJC Cup (Dominican Republic) and US Junior Olympic International (Dallas, Texas).
In Scotland, she did a couple training sessions at the national training centre and was seen by the experienced Calder.
Soon after, she earned a partial sport scholarship at the University of Stirling for a Bachelor in sport studies. She then approached the 50-year old coach to join his club and further her craft.
“We had a discussion, she came along and we hit off. The bottom line is she became part of the family. We were lucky enough that two of my sons, I’ve got four children myself, are big guys who are also heavyweights and were good guys to help me train her. It just worked out for us,” he added.
Calder said when he first met the 23-year-old Wood, she was still quite young (aged 19) to competing but had a good fundamental understanding of judo and a strong foundation to build on.
Her coach, also a heavyweight fighter, never competed at any great level but took up coaching and really enjoyed it.
With her prior experience, Calder was able to place more emphasis on his athlete to improve some of her specific judo movements for a heavyweight rather than just doing lighter judo work at the time.
Movement, gripping techniques and strategising on what and how she needed to be executing her throws for fighting bigger girls were his main objectives.
“When we first started, it was always first and foremost to qualify for the Olympics. To represent TT was a massive sign for Gabriella. To finally achieve that, it’s like a fairy tale; a dream come true for her and for me.
“Every judo coach in the world would love to say they coached at the Olympics. To have the opportunity to go alongside TT, even though I’m not from there, it’s a massive honour.
“I’m so proud of how she is, trains, acts and she’s a fantastic athlete. She never misses a training session, always works hard and is always 100 per cent. That’s all you can ask for,” he said.
Wood moved closer to the university and dojo to get the best of both worlds. She became close friends with Calder’s family members. His two sons also work with him and Wood at the dojo. The TT athlete also became friends with his daughters and even comes over for tea on weekends.
Calder described Wood as “family”. He also thought, with her being so far away from home, that he should provide her with a family-type atmosphere to ensure she remains comfortable in a distant land.
Calder, who’s been actively involved in judo for over three decades, also credited Wood’s relatives for keeping in contact with her and giving her the support she needs from home.
“It’s been really good for the club with having Gabriella on board because lots of the kids look up to her as a hero and as a mentor. It’s a good sign for the girls to see.
“With Gabriella being the first female judoka to represent TT, it’s a great opportunity for TT to increase that general side of the sport. This shows that if you put your head down and grasp, then this is what can happen to you. Your dreams can come through,” he said.
Calder believes that Wood’s first Olympics is a good step for her athletic progress and needs more tournaments such as these to help her understand the sport more.
With just three more years to go for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France, Calder wants his student to take part in as many meets as she can, get the experience and gradually build herself into a pro athlete.
“Gabriella can achieve anything. Olympics a good experience for her and the more events she can get like that, the more she understands the sport,” he added.
Calder concluded, “She’s qualified (for Olympics) this time through the continental quota but we would like to have to qualify through good performances and a high world rank. That’s the goal but it all comes down to finances.
“We’re trying to work on that and see if we can get some sponsorship put together to help her out. Only time will tell.
“I would like to say that it would be fantastic to keep her at my dojo. But I think Gabriella will be good no matter where she trains because of her mindset.
“She’s comfortable with us but if something else comes up and it better for her, we would not stand in her way. We would wish her the best and always be there for her. But it would be good if we were there as well.”