A year after I had spent my summer at the LA Judo Training Center, I decided I had to go to Europe to further my competition training. Many judokas from around the world would usually opt for Japan but I figured Europe would make more sense for me.

Language and culture would be an issue if I were to go to Japan. I didn't speak the language and was not all that familiar with the culture either. In contrast, if I were to go to the UK, neither language nor culture would be a problem. I also planned to visit Germany as my college roommate was German and I could stay at his mother’s house. Also, most Germans could speak English.

For the UK, I decided to go to the Budokwai, Europe's oldest judo club. It’s where Neil Adams had trained as a competitor. Later on, he would become a coach there too. I felt this was really the place for me to train at.

It was 1992 and the Internet and mobile phones were still years away. So, I headed out to London on a wing and a prayer. In retrospect it seems a bit foolhardy to go to England without any contacts or leads, with very little money, and with no plan other than to train in judo for the summer. But I was young and foolish (and also optimistic and fearless).

When I arrived, I checked into a cheap hostel and found my way to the Budokwai, where I had hoped to meet Neil Adams. But alas, he was no longer coaching there. I spoke to the manager and told him about my intention to do competition training in the UK. He told me the Budokwai had daily classes but it wasn’t a full-time training centre and it had no lodging facilities.  

“Try Camberley Judo Club,” he said. “They do full-time training and they have a hostel where you can stay in.”

He then gave me the contact for Mark Earle, the head coach at Camberley. He also introduced me to one of the Budokwai members, Nicolas Soames, a famous judo journalist who had just set up a judo book publishing company called Ippon Books.

I was thrilled to meet Nicolas because I had a copy of one of the books he wrote called “Olympic Judo: History and Techniques.” This was published by another company, Crowood Press, before he had established Ippon Books.

It was a great book, with lots of interesting stories about what happened at every Olympic judo competition from 1964 to 1988. But there were a few mistakes in it. Not significant mistakes but sometimes he got the techniques or the scores wrong. I knew because I had developed a habit of scrutinizing competition videos, thanks to the influence of my American coach. I had watched the 1984 and 1988 Olympics so many times, I had developed a photographic memory of everything that happened in all the matches.

I told Nicolas about the mistakes in his book. I wasn’t trying to be a smart alec or anything like that. I just wanted him to know so he could correct them in the next edition. He seemed fascinated and asked me to list down every single mistake that I had spotted.  

The next time I met him at the Budokwai, he told me that I was right about all the errors. He then spoke to me about his plans for Ippon Books. One thing led to another and he asked if I would be interested in working on a book project. He was planning to produce a book called “Great Judo Championships of the World,” which would contain results from major international judo competitions.  

To make the book more interesting, Nicolas suggested that we include short profiles of top champions. Pictures would be supplied by David Finch, a legendary judo photographer. “Are you up for it?” he asked. "You bet I am," I replied.

I knew nothing about writing a book and didn't even fancy myself as much of a writer, back then. But was I about to turn down a book publishing deal just because of that? Heck no.  

Camberley was a town that’s about 50km away from London (about the same distance between KL and Putrajaya). Not that far but by train it would take about two hours. Taxi costs were prohibitive and I don’t think I need to mention there was no Grab back then. But the fact of the matter is that there was no Grab back then, so I gathered my suitcase and hopped onto a train.

When I arrived at the station, I called up the club and they sent someone over to fetch me. I met up with Mark Earle and his wife Bernie, who helped him run the club. Camberley had quite a lot of full-time boys and girls living and training there. There were also players who did not live there but came to train regularly.

Training was usually three times a day with the strength and conditioning work done in the late morning. After that we’d eat lunch and rest until mid-afternoon, when we’d have our technical session. Then it’s a light meal and rest (usually a nap) until 7pm, when we’d have our randori. After that, it’s dinner and sleep.

Sometimes, when my coach felt like being a bit cruel, he would wake us up at 6am for a jog in the nearby forest. Once, he decided to really torture us so right after the run, he made us carry logs. Then, we had to climb ropes. I think at one point he even had us climbing trees. Finally, he had us do all kinds of bodyweight exercises that killed even the fittest among us.

That was pretty much my life in Camberley. Train, eat, rest. Then repeat, again and again and again. When we weren’t training, eating or sleeping, we’d be watching judo videos or talking about judo. I’m pretty sure when I was sleeping, I was dreaming about judo too.

It was judo 24/7 at LA Judo as well but this was different. In LA, I was the only judoka staying at the dojo. In Camberley, I was among a bunch of boys and girls equally as crazy about judo as I was, and they were around me all the time. So, it was a very different environment. The great thing about the players there was that they took me in straight away. I was a visitor but they didn’t treat me like one. I was one of the boys.

I quickly picked up some British slang. For example, once after a particularly tiring session, one of the boys commented: “You look knackered.”

“Naked?” I asked.

“No, not naked, knackered,” he replied and explained that it meant being very tired.

I always thought the British called the toilet the loo but the boys called it “the bog”.
One particular expression that I found quite funny was the phrase they used to describe someone who was completely exhausted during randori: “Look at him, breathing through his ass.”

It was quite an education for me.

Meals were simple but more varied than what I had to make do with at LA Judo because Camberley had a kitchen. There was a small grocery store nearby so I would usually buy salad, fruits and some simple food that I could prepare in the kitchen.

The randori was also more varied than at LA Judo because twice a week we would go to other clubs for our randoris. The Budokwai’s strongest randori night was on Tuesday, so every Tuesday, we’d get in a van and our coach would drive us to the Budokwai for a good sparring session.

We’d also go to a place called High Wycombe Judo Centre which was about 45km away from Camberley. At the time, it was considered a “Centre of Excellence” and clubs from around the region would assemble there for randori every Wednesday. On the mat, you’d easily have 40 players, all black belts and brown belts. It was really randori heaven.

On Saturdays, I would head back to London and train at the Budokwai again. The membership there was very different from that of Camberley. It was more of an international place where you’d have players from all over the world. Most of them were not competitors but strong recreational players.

There was an Algerian guy who had this remarkable whirling ouchi-gari. He would run little circles around you and then reap your leg away. It took quite a while for me to figure out how to stop him.

There was a Finnish girl who was just a blue belt. She was on some kind of exchange program for the summer and was the smallest player in the club. Because I was also one of the smallest players there, we would often do randori together. She wasn't very strong but very wiry and difficult to throw.

There was an Italian guy who liked to make the same sexual joke over and over again. If you looked exhausted he would come up to you and ask: “Tired?” If you replied yes, he would point his finger at you and say, “Too much jigy jigy!” He never got tired of that phrase and particularly liked saying it to unsuspecting new visitors, who would be dumbfounded as everyone around him laughed at the stale joke.

The receptionist was a Japanese girl who spoke quite good English but with a clear Japanese accent. I never saw her on the mat so maybe she wasn’t a judoka. Perhaps she was an international student who worked there part-time to earn extra income.

It was also during the Saturday sessions that I got the chance to catch up with Nicolas Soames and David Finch. Over the course of that summer, we’d strike up a good friendship. Little did I know that I would end up working for Nicolas after graduation, and would be collaborating with David for the next 30 years (and counting).

Midway through the summer, I made a trip to Germany to do some training there. I headed for Frankfurt, where my roommate’s mother’s house was. It was very convenient as Frankfurt was just 30km from the Russelsheim Olympic Training Centre.

I had identified Russelsheim to be the place I wanted to train because I saw in a Dan Rho judogi catalog that Daniel Lascau trained there. Lascau had just the year before, won the World title at -78kg. He was a Romanian refugee. Rumor has it that he had to swim across a big river to get over to Germany. While waiting for his asylum to be resolved, he was not allowed to work so he spent all his time training judo at Russelsheim. After a year of this, he was able to represent Germany in the 1991 Barcelona World Championships where, as a virtual unknown, he beat well-known players from France, Russia, Great Britain and Belgium to win the gold medal.

When I arrived in Frankfurt, Bernd’s mother called up Russelsheim and spoke with the coach there, Franz Fischer. He said I was welcome to train there while I was in Germany.

Coach Fischer is a remarkable fellow. As a young man in the 1960s he fell in love with judo and travelled al the way to Japan to further his training. He lived there for several years, learning the language and training at some of the hardest dojos there. To earn money, he would do odd jobs including working as an extra in Japanese movies. “I usually played the bad guy whenever they needed a European villain,” he told me.

After his competition career was over, he became a businessman and managed to start up a successful commercial fitness centre and judo dojo. He invited me to also train at his dojo because he knew I wanted to maximize my training opportunities while in Germany.

At Russelsheim, I found out that Lascau had already left and was no longer training there. But Coach Fischer introduced me to another -78kg judoka named Hans-Jorg Opp, whom everybody knew as Oppy.

Oppy was a top-level player who had represented Germany in the World Junior Championships and had won medals in the European Junior Championships, the European Team Championships and the World Military Games. At one time he was the alternate for Frank Wieneke, the German judoka who, as a complete unknown, caused a major upset in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by throwing Neil Adams for ippon.

We became fast friends. He took it upon himself to be the one to look after me during my stay in Germany. We were different weight classes so we didn’t do randori with each other but we spent countless talking about judo. I was fascinated about his stories regarding his rivalry with Wieneke, whom he admired and disliked at the same time.

Oppy, who was a bit older than I, was coming to the end of his competition career and was focusing on finishing up his studies. One day, he was too busy to keep me company so he asked one of his teammates, Tina, to accompany me for the day.

Tina was a young judoka who was at the time undecided whether to seriously pursue a competition career. She was training competitively, of course, but to pursue a competition career meant making a lot of sacrifices, including stalling your professional career until your competition career was over. It’s a big decision for any young person to make.

She took me to a café in Frankfurt and over coffee we talked about things that would seem really weird to non-judokas. For example, the first thing she talked about was her injuries. She said she had already broken each of her collar bones twice. So, that’s four collar bones she’s broken and she was barely out of her teens. I told her about my knee injury but at that point it wasn’t that serious yet (in later years I would have to have reconstrutive surgery for it).

Later she brought me to her school where there was some kind of outdoor festival going on. I can’t remember what that event was about because we were so absorbed in talking about judo. Tina would leave for the US on an exchange program a few days later so I never actually got to do any judo with her.

When I wasn’t training at Russelsheim, I would visit Coach Fischer’s dojo. There, I got to know a young Turkish immigrant who was roughly my size. He couldn’t speak much English but we didn't need language to do randori. Our first randori was a fierce exchange that was thoroughly enjoyable because we both gave it everything we got. I was completely exhausted afterwards but so was he. As I struggled to catch my breath, I saw him lying down flat on the mat. “He’s quite tired after fighting you,” my German coach said.

Coach Fischer invited me afterwards to have a dinner with him and a few other friends. We sat across from each other at the table and I spent the whole evening talking to him about judo. In retrospect, I was probably a bit rude taking up all his time. After all, there were other people at the table but he didn’t seem to mind. He enjoyed talking about judo too. And I loved hearing his judo tales, especially about his time in Japan.

Before I left Germany, he did one of the best things a coach could ever do, which was to give his player confidence. “Oon, you have a bright future ahead of you,” he said. “You can achieve whatever you set your sights on.”

My judo journey up to that point was in a sense full of misses. When I went to LA, I was looking for Hayward Nishioka but didn’t get a chance to meet him. When I went to the UK, I was looking for Neil Adams but didn’t get a chance to meet him either. Then, I went to Germany looking for Daniel Lascau but I missed out on meeting him too.

The Dalai Lama once said that “sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” This was certainly true for my judo journey up to that point.

So, I didn’t get to meet any of the people I had set out to meet but instead, I got to train under John Ross, who set the foundation for my judo; Mark Earle who taught me the value of hard work; and Franz Fischer, who made me believe in myself.

And I got to meet Nicolas Soames, who would become my first boss; David Finch, who would become my longtime collaborator in judo projects that would take us all over the world; and Oppy, who would become my lifelong judo friend.