2022 European Champion, Gemma Howell has today (11th December) announced her retirement from judo.
During a highly successful judo career, Gemma reached the podium for GB Judo at the European Championships in Sofia and Tel Aviv, represented Team GB at two Olympic Games (London and Tokyo) and picked up multiple medals on the IJF World Tour.
Gemma claimed Junior World and European bronze medals in 2008 before making her IJF World Tour debut the following year when she finished 5th at the Paris Grand Slam, competing in the -57kg category. Gemma later went on to win bronze at the prestigious Paris event in 2020, competing in the -70kg category.
Gemma went on to win a further two Grand Slam bronze medals and a silver at the 2022 Tel Aviv Grand Slam whilst on the Grand Prix stage, she has won 10 medals including gold medals in Zagreb and Budapest in 2019.
Gemma has overcome multiple injuries and eleven surgeries throughout her career. Gemma’s career highlight came in 2022 when she won gold at the European Championships in Sofia in the -63kg category; 4 years after taking bronze at the Championships in Tel Aviv in the -70kg category.
Upon her retirement, Gemma said: “It is so hard to say this out loud and I will be honest, I have been dreading this moment, but I finally think it is time to start putting my health first and retire from judo.
“I thought about stopping last year, after the last surgery, and never cried so much in my life. I know it wasn’t the right time then, but I do feel like now is the right time. It doesn’t make the decision any easier though.
“If my body would let me, I would keep doing this sport forever. It is the best sport in the world.
Speaking about making the decision to retire 7 months ahead of Paris, Gemma said: “The surgeon said in the summer that my arm injury was ‘career-ending’ due to the timing required to return; but I choose to believe in the 1% chance that I could return and make Paris.
“A recent diagnosis of Dupuytren’s contracture has resulted in me having 7 courses of radiotherapy, which has set me back even more. I think this is my bodies way of saying ‘enough is enough’.
Reflecting on her career, Gemma commented: “I am really proud of what I have achieved and how I have come back from all the injuries. Qualifying for London was massive, I can still recall picking up my Olympic kit.
“The win at the European Championships is the best feeling I have ever had in my entire life. Knowing what I overcame to get to that point made it all the more special.
“Whilst judo is an individual sport, I have so many people to thank who have helped me throughout my career, without whom, I would not have had the success that I have had. Bill Kelly was like a second dad to me since I started at Wolverhampton Judo Club aged 8. Growing up I idolised Kate Howey, so to have her as my coach is really special, not many people have a two-time Olympic medallist as a coach.
“Finally, I have to thank Jamie Johnson for the support he has given me, he has helped me overcome so many injuries and to have him in the chair for the European victory was a special moment for us both.
Speaking about the next chapter, Gemma said: “It is going to take some time to get used to. Judo is my life, it’s my identity, it’s all I have ever known. I have plans to become a maths teacher, but I think it will take a while to get away from being ‘Judo Gemma’.”
British Judo Performance Director, Nigel Donohue said: “It is always sad when a fighter’s career comes to an end, but Gemma can be extremely proud, as we are, of her achievements. Gemma has had many setbacks over the years, but I have never known a more determined and resilient athlete who kept coming back and remarkably, became European Champion just 18 months ago.
“Gemma has just not been a formidable fighter on the mat as she is an inspiration to many to show just what you can achieve if you work hard and never give in.
“Also, Gemma is one of the nicest and most caring people that you will ever meet who truly has a heart of gold. We wish Gemma all the very best as she transitions out of Elite Judo and who will always be a part of our Team.”
Jamie Johnson, GB Judo Women’s Lead Coach commented: “I have known Gemma since she was a member of the cadet squad. She has always given 100% no matter the situation, which as a coach, is all I could ever ask for.
“Her family and club coach (Bill Kelly) have been the backbone of her very successful judo career. Together we have shared some very special moments, but her European gold is one I will always remember and treasure forever.
“As a person, Gemma will go out of her way to help anybody; she is a very kind-hearted woman and an inspiration to everybody in judo. Whilst Gemma will be sorely missed around the British Judo Olympic and Paralympic National Training Centre, I know she will be a success as she embarks on her new journey as a maths teacher.”
Kate Howey MBE has worked with Gemma since she was in her early teens. Reflecting on their time together, she said: ‘I have been coaching and around Gemma for 20 years within the GB setup up and we have been on a journey with a fair few lows but some really good highs, from many operations to qualifying for two Olympic Games.
Gemma has had a fantastic career from winning a junior world bronze in Thailand (2008) to winning and becoming European Champion in 2022 and competing at two Olympic Games. It has been a privilege to be part of her journey and watch her grow into the amazing adult she is now and she will be missed around the WCPP programme and British Judo. I personally wish her well in the future and I hope she is as successful as a teacher as she was as a judoka.’