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The judo queen who overcame drugs hell and being a teenage mum to triumph at the very top.

AS BEFITS a world-class judo player, Chloe Cowen has oodles of guts and competitive spirit which saw her much decorated across the globe.

National champion 12 times, Commonwealth Games gold medallist and five European gongs of various hue, she topped all off by becoming an Olympian at Sydney 2000.

Such a depth of knowledge and experience was not to be wasted after retirement, Cowen now a technical officer for British Judo based here in the North East and a support coach to the British team in Olympic year. That toughness which took her on a switchback ride across her sport was desperately needed to cope with the hand life dealt her at the very start and end of her competitive career. Three times she was confronted with momentous moments which challenged the very survival of a determined athlete.

Twice she triumphed and overcame adversity but the third time on the greatest stage of all - the Olympics - she was cut down and left so badly injured she never competed again.

Cowen was brought up in Blyth, a town where the use of drugs was rampant among the young.

Faced by such temptation and self destructiveness, judo actually saved her.

She said: "The drugs scene was horrendous when I was a kid at home in Blyth.

"I lost a few friends who overdosed and paid a terrible price.

"I resisted the temptation to dabble, but it was judo which kept me safe because I was away an awful lot, especially at weekends.

"I was leading a double life really - with my mates in Blyth one minute and the would-be budding judo star the next."

Maybe drugs did not claim her, but fate was still to strike hard and deep.

By the tender age of 15 in 1990 her career was on lift off.

Cowen won a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Dijon and all possibilities seemed within her range.

Her senior debut that same year was at the European Championships - fiercely competitive and of an extremely high standard - where she took seventh place.

Then, bang, her career was dead in the water.

She fell pregnant and, aged 17, was living in a council house in Blyth as a one-parent family with her baby daughter.

She admitted: "It was initially a terrible time.

"My mam and dad were devastated.

They knew the potential I had to go all the way in my sport, yet here I was packing it in and facing up to being a parent on my own at such a young age.

"I realised then how fabulous my life had been!

"I loved my daughter, of course I did, but I was never going to settle down with her dad and so it was tough."

Luckily her national coach Roy Inman, remembering her potential, refused to give up on her. She said: "He kept me going. He phoned up all the time and made certain I received every sports grant going which was such a help. He kept my hunger alive."

Within a year Cowen was back, stronger and more determined than ever.

She added: "I took silver at the European Championships of 93 in Athens when I only lost to a French girl on decision - that is when points are level and the referee has to make a choice.

"The same year I finished seventh at the world championships in Canada." The answer to parenthood was to take her baby Thea with her. Laughing at the memory, Cowen recalled: "I ferried her around. She came training and used to sit at Gateshead Stadium reading books while I worked out on the weights.

"Of course mam and dad were a great help too, because when I competed abroad they looked after Thea."

Cowen is naturally fiercely proud of her daughter, who is 21 this month and in her final year at Stirling University.

She said: "She did judo just like me and won the nationals at 15 but a year later developed epilepsy. Nothing will stop her though - she is a cheerleader for American football in Stirling!" A son George was born after Cowen retired following the Sydney Olympics and, aged 10, he is showing a sporting prowess with athletics club Gateshead Harriers. She was also more than good enough to entice the Frankfurt club to pay her and fly her over to fight in the German Bundesliga.

Sydney as the noughties dawned was to be the Geordie girl's ultimate moment of glory. The pinnacle of her career. Women's judo had only entered the Olympic calendar in 1992 and, having missed out on Atlanta four years later when injury did not help her cause, this was to be it.

Cowen added: "I was very highly ranked in the world and had just enjoyed my most successful year.

"All seemed geared for me to have a real chance and to produce a major breakthrough.

"Judo is a minority sport and it is the Olympics which benefit it most.

"There is a need for champions and for people with huge personalities.

"That is how greats like Brian Jacks and Neil Adams did so much to promote my sport."

Cowen flew to the GB holding camp on the Gold Coast quietly harbouring a golden dream.

However, with the Olympics just a week and a half away, she suffered what she still calls today "the worst moment of my life, never '' mind my career." She broke a bone in her foot during a routine training fight.

Cowen said: "I felt it go and knew I was in trouble.

"I could feel the pain but what I felt more was anger that something like this could happen so close to the biggest moment of my career. I did not want to believe it.

"The doctors and physios were amazing but of course there was only so much they could do and performing miracles wasn't one of them." When the entire GB squad flew down to Sydney Cowen was unable to enter the village with the rest of them.

She could not walk and was discreetly carried through the back door.

She said: "However I never once thought of pulling out of the Games. "They were far too important for that.

"Everything was kept hush hush of course. The press did not know a thing.

"When the draw was made I got the best one possible. I could see myself in the final, I honestly could. It was frustrating.

"I got an injection before my first fight but when I tried to do some light work I could still feel the pain.

"I was angry and depressed but they told me not to worry. I would get a more powerful injection on the day.

"Of course the Olympic officials knew of my injury and I had to sign a document saying it was my decision to fight.

"That did nott bother me a bit. It was my decision."

In the warm-up room come the big day, Cowen felt sharp and ready.

She won her first fight quite well but ominously her foot played up on the long walk back to the holding area, where she would wait for half an hour to go out again in the quarterfinals.

Cowen added: "I was screaming at the medical staff for more injections but they could nott give me them.

"I was fighting at light heavyweight which meant the girls I had to heave about were big.

"It is also a matter of balance in judo and a foot injury was not going to help that."

Inevitably nature won and Cowen didn't.

She said: "I lost to a Romanian who had never beaten me in her life. I had defeated her in the Europeans and every other time we met but she held me down.

"That had not happened to me at this level. She went on to get bronze but that only heightened my frustration."

FLOOR SHOW Cowen in judo action MOVING ON Chloe Cowen working at the GB World Cup in 2010 and inset below with her daughter Thea
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 24, 2012
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