In the ring with Katy (04.07)

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Until I met Katy Hathaway I assumed that Sumo was a men-only pursuit. The ritual of the dohyo is part of what makes this way of life so compelling, but it’s also, well, kind of misogynist in the way that you might expect a sport that originated in the eighth century to be.

Anyway, let’s not worry about that because I was wrong, women do wrestle, in fact there’s a whole women’s competition at the Sumo World Championships, a regular gathering which took place in Osaka in 2006 and will be staged in Lausanne in 2007. Katy was a member of the British team who fought in Osaka, whose experiences were documented in the excellent film Strictly Lady Sumo, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed about it. Take it away Katy!

What do you love about Sumo?
When watching – its unpredictability, the combination of strength, speed and skill and the focus and commitment with which the pros fight.

When competing – its physicality, the mental demands, the fact that there’s nowhere to hide and you’re only accountable to yourself for whether you win or lose

How did you get started?
It began in June 2006 on my sofa. I’d just finished my teacher training and was drinking tea, flicking through the channels when I came across a feature on Richard and Judy about women’s sumo. Jackie Bates, until last year Britain’s only international woman sumo wrestler, and Steve Patemen, President of the British Sumo Federation, were talking about a drive to get a women’s team together for the World Championships in Japan in October 2006. I called up and the next Saturday attended try-outs in Derby.

You’re a British woman taking part in a Japanese sport. Actually, it’s more than just a sport, it’s a massively ritualised way of life. What’s that like and how do you negotiate the cultural differences?
Firstly there are big differences between amateur and professional sumo. Amateur sumo, although a big part of Japanese life, is much less ritualised than the professional sport. Neither men or women throw salt or do shiko (leg stamping) before bouts.

Women’s sumo has featured in the World Championships for the last five years and the audience at the World Championships appeared as supportive and excited about the women’s event as the men’s. I felt and feel a great deal of respect for the sport.

What skills do you use when you are fighting?
The sport is 90% mental. If you have any doubt in your mind when you step up that you might lose, it’s likely that you will. You have to be present and focussed, clear about your game plan and alert to what your opponent is trying to get you to do.

My strength is my start and my use of my head. That comes from years of rugby and a strong neck. I’m tall and have a relatively high centre of gravity so can’t hang around. I have to hit my opponent hard and drive them out of the ring with the momentum created within about 7 seconds because I’m not skilled at throwing or avoiding being thrown.

Do you ever use these skills in your real life?
Um, not so much the physical skills, although I’m good to have around if there’s a car to be shoved.

Would you ever fight men?
Not in competition. I fought my coach in training and, personally, found it difficult. Other women were able not to differentiate, just to fight the person in front of them. Maybe it would be different were I to fight men more frequently. I find it extremely difficult to take being hit by a guy though, and that happens in sumo.

What it was like being in the documentary?
Surreal. Because I knew I’d have to go back to school and resume life as a teacher, I was aware that I didn’t want to do or say anything stupid. The power of editing was forever nagging at the back of my mind but as we got deeper into filming, it became clearer that the documentary crew were interested in telling the story of what happened. The fact that my head was used in the graphics has given me cult status at school.

Is it really better to be bigger? What makes a great wrestler?
Not always. Being big and fast helps, and extra heft obviously makes it more difficult to get somebody moving. A great wrestler is someone fast, strong and tenacious with excellent physical instincts. Becky ‘Pink’ Williams at 12 stone was the smallest on our team but ticked all of those boxes and is a great wrestler. To a certain extent the weighting of the skills that make a great wrestler changes from one weight category to the next. If you’re in the open category, as our silver medallist Adele Jones was, you have to be extremely instinctive and able to adapt your style to your opponent. It’s very different fighting someone of 28 stone and someone of eight. I prefer fighting heavyweights.

One thing that stops me wanting to have a go is that I’m really afraid of getting injured. What’s your advice?
Stay up! Fear of injury is a good motivator not to get thrown or pushed to the ground as competitions are fought on clay.

What’s next for you?
I’m not currently training, which I feel sad about. Combining a teaching career with a seven hour round trip to train in Derby became unsustainable. I was exhausted and broke. At the moment I’m not able to commit to the kind of training I need if I want to contend on an international stage. Things might be different over the summer when I have more time. Or if I could secure sponsorship.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just how brilliant it was being around everyone who tried out, trained and competed in the British competitions. The documentary only showed the tip of the iceberg in terms of the women who showed up and put their bodies on the line to make the team. My favourite part of the whole experience were the early training sessions, I had the time of my life getting to know some amazing, courageous women. Although Strictly Lady Sumo brought women’s sumo into the public domain, Jackie Bates and her fighting lipstick had blazed a trail for years to enable us to do what we did.