When James Hornsby finally managed to throw his French opponent to win the gold medal at this year’s Veteran European Judo Championships, the 40 year old held out his arms and screamed in celebration.
Back at ESG Rail’s offices in Derby, colleagues stayed late to watch their projects director step onto the mat in Glasgow to try and record a memorable victory.
“It was brilliant. You can’t describe the feeling,” said James, who returned to the office to find a Union Jack draped over his desk.
James started Judo when he was six years old, joining a club in his hometown of Scunthorpe. He was later part of Sheffield University Judo Club, where he won the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Judo competition, before he moved to Nottingham and joined Ryecroft Judo Club.
“I walked through the doors at Ryecroft. They put me out front and basically lined everybody up to fight me,” said James, who is a third dan black belt. “That made me know it was the right club.”
Appetite for competition
James began competing at the age of 12 and won the British Under-21 competition when he was 20. Although he’s never been part of the senior British squad, he has been ranked within the top 10 fighters in the country.
Although passionate about the sport, James couldn’t see a viable career in Judo and decided instead to study electrical and electronic engineering at university. He’s gone on to carve out a successful career in engineering and now sits on the executive board at ESG Rail.
Throughout all this time, James has continued to train and, more than 30 years since he first set foot on the mat, his appetite for competition is as strong as ever.
“Last year, we decided to enter the British Masters, so I fell into the 40 to 45-year-old category. I went and did the British Masters and won that.”
Road to Europe
Following success in the British Masters competition, James and his training partner, Nick Hawke, set their sights on the European championships. His preparations included losing 14kg (more than two stone) to get in under his preferred 81kg weight category.
“Since the start of this year, we’ve pretty much been on a diet and we’ve been travelling around the Midlands to all sorts of different Judo clubs,” said James.
One of the stops on their tour was the British Judo Centre of Excellence in Walsall.
“As you can imagine, the standard there is pretty high,” said James. “That pretty much got me in good shape, got the practices we needed to do, got the experience of different fighters, different bodies, different techniques, things like that.“
James arrived at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow with his coach and training partner on 15 June ready for his first fight.
“It is quite a nervous environment,” said James. “We kind of say that you can lose a fight before you even go on the mat just in your own head.”
He added: “My coach was there with me all day. He was brilliant, he was absolutely brilliant. He made sure I was warm, he made sure I was focussed. He made sure I was eating and drinking the right things. He encouraged me.”
James faced an opponent from the Czech Republic in the first round, which he won with ippon – the highest score in Judo. Next up was a Norwegian fighter followed by a Hungarian competitor in the third round. James was then pushed all the way to golden score – a period of extra time where the first score wins the bout – in the semi-final by an Italian fighter.
“It really starts to be who can dig in the most, who actually has got that little bit of extra to take the score,” said James, who eventually gained the advantage to win a place in the final and guarantee himself a medal.
A long three-hour wait followed as James tried to remain focussed to keep his winning run going.
“That was one of the toughest bits,” said James. “My coach was saying it’s almost once in a lifetime; when are you going to be here again. You’re not going to get another chance at this. You need to go out and beat this guy.”
A talented French fighter awaited James in the final. Judo is practically a national sport in France, with eight French competitors in James’ group alone.
James said: “I knew I was going in against a really good fighter and it turned out he was.”
Both men had similar styles and the French fighter started strongly before James swapped his grip, changed his approach and was able to find a winning throw during golden score.
James said: “If you’d asked me at the beginning of the day, any medal would’ve been fantastic, so you’ve just got to go with an open mind and not have an expectation on yourself. Just go and fight and see where you end up.”
James was being urged on by his colleagues at ESG Rail, who found a novel way to encourage him to reach his required weight.
“Everyone’s been great supporting me here. It’s been brilliant,” said James. “We had a chart on the wall with my weight. They made me weigh in every Friday.”
James said the reaction on the day of the fight was unbelievable. “Everybody was asking for the link to the live feed, looking what the order of the fights were and when I was on and, pretty much, I think for most of Friday I stopped the office.
“Everybody crowded round a computer screen and watched me fighting. That shows the kind of closeness we have as a business really. We do social events, we pull together as a business at the right time and everybody’s behind everybody else doing well and I think that’s a real asset of a business.”
James also talked about how he thinks Judo has benefitted him personally and professionally by teaching respect and control. “You need to be measured and I do take that into work,” said James.
He’d urge anyone to give it a go. “I’ve had the bug for a long time. I think when you do a sport for a long time it shapes you.”
He added: “It’s really good because when I go to Judo – whatever you’re dealing with in the day, in the office, at home, whatever – you can’t think of anything else, so for pretty much an hour and a half twice a week, I’m on the Judo mat and that’s all I can think about because if you think about something else somebody’s going to throw you – and it hurts.”
The next step for James could be the Veterans World Championships in Cancun, Mexico, in October. The competition is likely to be high, with former world championship and Olympic medallists taking part. James has said he’d like to take part in the British championship again this year, but he has considered hanging up his black belt for good.
“The only thing is do I retire from competing with that. It’s not a bad one to retire on is it.”
Lead photo courtesy of Mike Varey/ElitePix