Interview Taken by: Jouke van der Woude (KJI translator, Dutch Team Captain)
European Kendo Championship 2014 title
Prologue: reflections on tall people and Japan
Everybody in Japan always says to me: “You are so tall, we can’t hit you on the head.”
So, when I came back to Japan [after the European Kendo Championship in Helsinki, 2009] and everybody was asking how it went and I would tell them “Well, I lost in the quarterfinals to the person that won. But! I fought somebody who was over two meters tall, and I hit their Men twice, so you guys don’t get to complain to me ever again!”
So, any time someone tells me I am really tall, I tell them about that one time.
Started Kendo in Oct 1999, won the European Kendo Championship in 2014, participated in the WKC five times, and got Kantosho at three of them. Was British Open champion twice and won the Premiers Cup (which is for British only) five times, four of which were consecutive. Moved to Japan in July 2007. Currently works at a global web services company.
-What age are you now? Because that’s a long time, Helsinki was 11 years ago, and you made it to the quarterfinals.
That was the second time I have been in the quarterfinals.
-Okay, that was my next question. That must have been not your first tournament because you do not often make it to the quarterfinals on your first try.
No, my first championship was in 2001.
-2001? Oh my god, that’s 19 years ago.
-Was it before or after Glasgow [World Kendo Championship]?
Before Glasgow. Glasgow was my first World Kendo Championship. 2001 was in Italy. It was a long time ago, I don’t quite remember. It was the one that Gabor Erdelyi won. In the final, he fought Mats Wahlquist from Sweden, who is a referee now. Anyway, that was my first European Championship. I am forty this year.
-Okay, so your first participation was when you were twenty-one. What age did you start Kendo?
-Nineteen? So, you made it into the team after 2 years?
-That is quite impressive.
It is unusual. I am not sure if they were giving me a chance or it was proof that I was good.
-Under what teacher did you start?
My teacher in the UK was Japanese. He is not famous at all. His name was Oishi. He did very orthodox Kendo. So, I had the advantage of learning very straightforward basics right from the start. He was orthodox but he was also particularly good at what he did. You could always see what he was doing. When I think back to one or two of the times that I remember doing Jigeiko with him, I totally get now what he was doing and why. I still keep in touch with him. He is in Japan now as well.
-For high level players it is natural to have a desire to win. Did you ever have the realization that you could take the title?
I wanted to, but before I had won, I was in the quarterfinals three times. So, I felt like maybe I had the potential to get a medal, and yeah, I wanted to win, but it was never like “right, today is the day that I’m going to win”. That never happened.
Maybe there are people like Sándor Dubi and Fabrizio Mandia who have won the title a few times each and their goal is literally to go in there and win. Of course, my goal is to win but what is my expectation? It was not like I was expecting to go in there and get a medal.
-That is interesting. Because you quit after you had won, right?
-That is why we were wondering whether the goal had such importance to you that you decided to retire once it was achieved.
No, I retired when I wanted to retire and that was regardless of whether I won. If I had come last in the European Championship, I would still have retired. Although I went in to win, I was not expecting it. I was going to retire anyway.
Actually, people from the British Kendo Association approached me on two occasions to ask me if I would reconsider.
-So, you went there knowing it is your last championship and you can go all out.
Yeah, exactly. I knew it was my last one. I went into it as good as I could and I knew I could get to the quarterfinals because I did the previous year, but that was it.
Honestly, it was a hard time for me as well because Andy Fisher has gotten third place before in Berlin and I do not think he had gotten that far in the past. I have consistently gotten up to that point but then here is this guy whom I love as a close friend, and he’d gotten there… What on earth am I doing wrong? Why could he get there but I could not?
-Was he the first one from the British team to get a medal?
No. The first European champion was a Brit.
No one knows that! No one knows that to the point that Ralph Lehman even said to me that I made history on that day. That is not true. (laughs)
-Who was ‘the Brit’?
I don’t even remember his name… He is not doing Kendo anymore. Let’s have a look at Wikipedia.
-I wonder who manages that page by the way…
Not me. I would have given myself at least capital letters for my name. Right, it was David Todd in 1974. That is a long time ago. I was minus six.
After that Brits came second twice in 1978 and 1993, and then the next medal was Andy’s.
-I suppose you were training hard in preparation for the European Championship that you have won. As a competitor I know that the way you observe Kendo, the way that your techniques feel and basically the whole lead up to the tournament determines a lot of your mindset during the tournament itself. How was that for you?
The February before, I went to the Inter-prefectural Championship group stages in Tokyo. The way that they do it is they split each position in the team by age and there are 7 players in a team. Basically, if you win, you go into the team. So, I was doing Jiho and I got to the 4th round in Tokyo, which isn’t too bad. And I beat somebody who had been in the All Japan Championship. His name is Takamura. He is an office worker, but he is one of the strongest office workers in the whole country.I managed to beat him somehow in Encho. I lost two rounds later to a policeman, but even then, I didn’t come out of that thinking I got absolutely smashed. I was like “that was really close, I could have done something there”.
From that point of view, I felt that I had a bit of momentum. Things were going well, my Kendo was working, and then when we got to France I still felt okay, I got there with enough time to get my jetlag sorted. So, I felt good going into the competition, but even though I’d beaten Takamura, I didn’t feel like “this is my year, I’m going to do this”. I know that I am stronger than a lot of other people going into that competition and would be dumb of me not to understand that. At the same time, I know that I am not the strongest person there and I am not the person on everyone’s mind when they think who is going to win this competition.
-Okay, so you mentioned the momentum. Your mindset felt right, you basically had some tailwind. Was there anything technical that contributed to it?
No. As I look back now on my time in the national team when I was really focusing on competition from 2001 to the moment I retired in 2015, I actually think I held back my Kendo development. It was absolutely the greatest time in my Kendo life, but if I were to go back and do it again, I would do it differently.
-Why would you hold yourself back?
I was doing Kendo to win, whereas now I have different objectives. As a result, I feel that my Kendo is very different from when I was a competitor.
A good example is something very basic. I do not raise my hands that much anymore, and when I do I go straight back to Kamae as soon as I can. That is a big thing for me now to always be in Kamae. This is even how I teach children now. You must be in Kamae to be able to effectively hit somebody. But when you are a competitor, you also try to not get hit, and the easiest way to do so is to block. When you are blocking, you are not in Kamae and to attack from blocking is an inefficient approach when it comes to doing Kendo, even though it may seem counterintuitive. I am not just saying it because I know it is true, I’m saying it because I figured out that’s what I want to do with my Kendo.
-Do you ascribe this insight to training in Japan?
I think I have to, but not directly. I did not figure it out because I am in Japan but being in Japan was a big influence to doing it. Let’s be honest, I was exposed to a higher level of teaching and many different styles and just a wider breadth of Kendo. So, I had an opportunity to come to this of my own accord.
That is what I teach kids as well. I can tell you anything, but unless you do it for yourself, you are not going to improve your Kendo. I need to eat my own dog food, right?
From that point of view, now I’m not 100% focused on competition and I’m not held back by having to win. Because let’s be honest, when you are on a national team, you have a responsibility to everybody else who comes there, to the people who are paying for you to be there. The federation has selected you to be there, there is a lot of responsibility. You do not want to go there and be the idiot that loses in 5 seconds.
You do not want that, and you’ve got to do whatever you can to win. It becomes an overriding goal. To the credit of people like Dubi and Mandia, maybe they have been able to get past that. For me, I was not able to do so while I was a competitor. Once I retired and was free of all that responsibility, I felt that I was finally able to do Kendo for myself. When I realized that, that was the actual moment when my Kendo started to grow and to develop.
-It seems to me that a lot of guys in the national teams are struggling with that. They are too afraid of taking risks. Because when you do and you mess up, you look like an idiot. And then you may actually lose when you are in Kamae trying not to raise hands and just get whacked on the head. Then, it looks like you weren’t paying attention.
I have a good analogy for this. Have you seen The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise? There is a bit when he is in a samurai village training with some guy. He gets totally beaten and then a young kid comes over to him and says: “Too much mind.” And what he really means is that you are thinking about too many different things. Kendo people are guilty of that in competition. We are worried about our team, worried about what people are thinking about us, our reputation, worried about losing quickly, worried about everything.
I’m not saying that I’ve got rid of that, but I feel like I’m getting closer to the point where I’m less worried about what people think and more focused on doing my own Kendo. I could not do that when I was a competitor. That is a huge difference for me.
-Still though, you have won it, even though you did not have this insight back then. How did you do it?
I can talk you through the day, I still remember it.
First thing that happened is I slept really badly. I must have slept for less than six hours because I was really nervous and couldn’t get to sleep. When I finally woke up, I had a blocked nose. I literally remember waking up, feeling that my nose was blocked and thinking: “Well, that’s today messed up.” So I had written it off. I literally woke up and thought, “I’m not going to do this” and I had decided “It is not going to happen today, let’s just see how this goes”.
I had an Italian guy in the poules and the Italians had won the day before in the team category, and then a Fin doing Jodan. I was confident about the second match, but the Italian was an unknown entity to me. As a result, I decided just to go in and do whatever the heck I can do. One thing though, in the team competitions the day before I knew that he was watching me. I owe an apology to Jon Fitzgerald who was in the team at that time. [I remember putting Jon on his behind.] I knocked him over on purpose during Jigeiko because the Italian guy from my poule was watching me and Jon doing Jigeiko.
-Really? Just to make a statement! (laughs)
Yeah. I am sorry, Jon, if you read this. I have never told you, but I did it on purpose. [I was intolerable that day.] I just looked over at the Italian guy when I did that and then helped Jon back up and proceeded beating him up as much as I could, because I knew that this guy was watching even though I felt sorry for Jon. It was not like the level between me and Jon was so fundamentally different, but I thought I’ve got to do something and it worked because I won.
So, I got out of the poules. That’s my thing, I’ve never lost in the poules in the European Championships. My number one objective was not to lose in the poule, so that was objective number one done.
First match out of the poules was against a Polish guy, I think. It was a bit tricky, and it went into Encho. Who did I have after that…? I think Chris Kroebl.
-He is a tough opponent.
He was difficult. I took an Ippon from him and then I went out, I did Jyogai. Then at the end of the match something happened, I think he did a Taiatari and it caught me at an awkward angle. As I was falling over, I grabbed his Shinai!
I’ve never done anything like that before.
-Was it to regain your balance or something?
Yes, it was pure instinct. And the referees let it go! But then the Shimpan Shunin stopped the match and gave me my second Hansoku and literally in two seconds the match went to Encho.
-Would you have rather fallen over if you had known?
No. In that way, it was self-preservation, because I knew that I was going to fall over very awkwardly. I was worried I was going to hurt myself. I remember that split second decision. The only thing that was there was his Shinai, so I grabbed it. I still landed on both knees and it really hurt and then they gave me a Hansoku. This was the worst of both worlds! So, I took another Ippon in Encho and then I was up against Wesley Haecke.
Bless Wesley. I have lost to him in the past, but never at the European Championships. So, I had a kind of confidence going into it thinking: “Right, I’ve beaten Wesley before, I know what to do against him.” That was in the quarterfinals, so I was like: “Screw me, I’ve got to beat Wesley but if I can do this, I am going to get my first medal.” I was past my best.
So, I had to beat him. I went into that match with a lot of confidence and I won. First Ippon was good, the second one was shady. I will be the first one to admit it and he will tell me afterwards. He did actually, I said “I know”. That’s his prerogative, I’m okay with that. I agreed with him that it was not the best Ippon in the world to be honest. But heck, if the referees are going to raise a flag, so be it.
Suddenly, for the first time ever, I am in a medal match. I was against Dario Baeli. The previous day, he was one of the heroes of the Italian team. He had done the business against the French, so it was going to be hard. He is very aggressive, always coming for you. I think that was my best match. I was very happy with that Shiai. He really came for me. That was a match where my plan was basically: “Don’t do anything stupid.” It was very much about just trying to stay in control of myself. The first Ippon was when he came for me, and I blocked it in such a way that I could push him behind me as he went past. Because I had momentum in the push, I was able to come straight back in before he could do anything, so I took Men. Next was actually the Ippon that I remember most from the day. There was one point when he just kept coming and banging forward, so I was just going backwards, and I remember this one moment when his hands came down for a split second. I hit his Kote and just ran.
-Hit and run!
It was totally a hit and run. Then I saw the flags come up and was like “Screw me, I’m in the final”. I still remember that Ippon to this day as the one that got me into the final.
-Was it a Hiki-kote?
Yeah, a Hiki-kote. So that was good, but during that match I had come for Kote and it was an awful attack as I had put my head down and he went to strike me but because my head was already going down, he hit the back of my head. I don’t hold him responsible for that at all, but he then went straight in after the attack, as you would. He basically went on top of my head with his Do, so it was like taking a Taiatari to the top of your head. My ears were ringing, and my head was splitting. I got an instant split headache.
-On top of less than six hours of sleep!
Exactly. I was just a mess. Besides, I suffer from migraines every now and then. I get one every six to eight weeks. So going into the finals, I started to feel one coming on as a result of being smacked on the head. At that point, it actually went through my mind that I knew I was going to suffer for it, so should I have just said I couldn’t do it? Because if you don’t have migraine, you don’t know what it’s like, and if you do, you will sympathize with anybody who has migraines. So, I could feel this thing coming on and I thought for 5 seconds should I just say: “Look, I’m really sorry, I just can’t do this.” And then I just thought, and I remember this, I was walking around before the final. As I was walking past Mads Wahlquist, who is now a referee. He looked at me and said: “Good luck, hope you do well.” Not even like “hope you win”, ‘just “hope you do well” and I was like “well, I’ve got to do this”.
-That was the little push you needed.
Yes, that was it. At the end of the day, I could go in, lose in 5 seconds, get a silver medal and it would still be the best I’ve ever done.
-You knew it was going to be your last EKC.
Right. It was done, it was the last match. So, I decided to heck with it, I’ll take the risk and just do it. I went and I sat down and suddenly realized that this was everything that I’ve been aiming for the past thirteen years of my Kendo life. I had started in 2001 in the British national team and here I was thirteen years later about to go into the final. This is why I’m here.
The migraine was coming, and I had a small blind spot appearing. I just thought to heck with it, I don’t care. I knew that I had a smile on my face, that’s funny. I made eye contact with Tibor Barani, he saw me smiling and smiled at me. I thought “Ok, let’s just go and do it. What have I got to lose? I’ve got a silver medal now. That’s fine.” For whatever reason it must have put the migraine to the back of my mind for a couple of minutes.
-And the blind spot?
I still had the blind spot. I disappeared halfway through the match. I still remember it disappearing. That’s the messed-up thing about the migraines, they come and go like that. I would love to be able to say I knew why.
We did a Shomen ni Rei and I remember thinking “That’s cool, I’ve never done it before”. We did the thing and Kensaku [Maemoto] came for Kote immediately. I remember thinking: “Why is he going for Kote? Just hit him!” – and the flags went up. “Oh, that’s too fast, it’s going to be a nightmare…” But even though that was the first point at which I thought I could win the match, it was game on.
I still remember it to this day. I scored an Ippon too fast and afterwards I remember thinking “I’m going to have to block like crazy against this guy for 5 minutes.” After about 10 seconds we were in Tsubazareiai, and I started messing around. Then Louis Vitalis, who was Shushin, called us in and said: “This is the final of the European Championships. You can’t do Tsubazareiai like that.” And I was like, “He’s totally right. Let’s go.” So, I started being more aggressive. After scoring, that in turn was the thing that I needed to turn it around.
-He actually helped you in a way.
Yeah, by telling me to not do bad Tsubazareiai so I thought I’ve got to start attacking, and I did. Then I felt the match completely turned into my favour, immediately. I thought: “He’s got to come to me, but if I just keep attacking him in a way that he won’t be able to do anything about it, I will win.”
-This might have been a glimpse of the mindset you have now.
Definitely. The last 2 minutes of that match definitely influenced my thought process a lot. I remember the second Ippon, and again, he was coming. I was maintaining my Kamae and I knew he was eager to hit me. I think it was a Nuki-men or something like that. The technique just came out, I only remember thinking: “Don’t punch the air, don’t start celebrating in the middle of the Shiai-jo. Just hold it, Rei, one more Rei, step out of the Shiai-jo.”
Then I remember Andy [Fisher]. Andy had lost early that day and he was not in a great place for himself, but I knew that I was continuing to go. In the British team we had this system when the women were doing their individuals, the men were there to support. We carried their Shinai, water and so on, and then on the men’s day we changed.
-Yeah, we have the same in the Dutch team.
But Andy had lost earlier than expected, so I told him I was sorry and that I wanted him to be on the mat. He said he would do it if the coach agreed. I went to the coach, I didn’t even ask him, just said I wanted Andy to go with me. That was also important to me because me and Andy have been rivals and close friends for a very long time. Having him there was a good calming thing. He was this constant factor in my Kendo life, a person I know I can rely on. He was there and if he saw me getting riled up, he could tell me to calm down a bit and when I had to keep doing something he would nod to me on the mats.
When I scored the first Ippon, I heard him shouting. So, when I won I was trying to remain composed and he just legged it to me and gave this massive hug and broke his eyebrow on my Mengane. It was pure emotion between us that just came through. That was the moment when I could let it all go: “I’m done, I just did what I came here to do. This has always been my goal and I finally did it.” It was a moment of release and relief.
-That is beautiful. What a story!
It was a crazy day. I’m not sure I could do it again.
-There were a lot of elements in there that you cannot replicate. Let’s say you participated again and won, it would have been completely different.
Yeah, I would be the oldest geezer in the arena, for a start. I would approach it very differently. If somebody suddenly said, “Gibbo, you’ve got to go to the European Championship”, I wouldn’t care nearly as much. Not because I’ve won and I’ve done what I wanted to do. It’s not about that anymore. Now I go to competitions for fun. I do have competitive goals, but they are something to drive me, they are not the reason why I do something. I have gone past that stage in my life. There was a time when after winning people would put all this pressure on me because I was a European Champion, but I don’t care these days. Why would you expect me to win if Uchimura Sensei is standing right there? It would be nice, yeah, but I’m a realist at the same time.
-Well, you remained undefeated.
Japanese call it “Kachinige” – winning and running away. It is like eating a nice meal at a restaurant and leaving without paying the bill.
-What are the origins of being called Gibbo?
I’ve been called Gibbo since I was six years old. It’s a school nickname. After I left secondary school in the UK I went to work (I didn’t go to the university) and there was another Stuart. We couldn’t be both Stuart because it was going to be confusing, so I just told them they could call me Gibbo and then it stuck.
-It sticks for a reason.
Yeah, right. No one wants to call you Stuart when there’s another Stuart around. I was just working at a random shop. Then when I started Kendo one of our regular customers came to the Kendo place and was like “Hey, Gibbo, how is it going?” and then everybody at the Kendo Kai started to call me Gibbo. So when somebody from my club also joined the national team, everyone there started to call me Gibbo, because he did. And because people on the national team called me Gibbo, Ozawa Sensei called me Gibbo and the Japanese started calling me Gibbo too. I’m almost forty years old and people use the same nickname as when I was six!
-Well there’s something to that.
A total lack of imagination, that’s what it is.