The Malta Independent 14 April 2021, Wednesday

50 Shades of Greats - ‘Sport is a character-builder’

Simon Farrugia Monday, 5 April 2021, 11:54 Last update: about 8 days ago

The Malta Independent on Sunday meets LAURIE PACE, a name synonymous with Judo in Malta. She speaks about her illustrious career, the GSSE medal winning, her love for adventure and her bronze medal in the New Zealand Commonwealth Games. 

Laurie Pace was born on 9 February 1966 in Toronto, Canada. Her family emigrated to Malta when she was still young.

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Looking back at her childhood days Laurie started to describe her early childhood memories. “I had a happy childhood, always looking for mischief and adventure and to be honest I haven't changed since then. I think my mum and dad had something to do about that. They always pushed me to go further and never to be afraid to do more, to jump higher, to run faster. They never held me back in anything.”

Pace can be considered as an exemplary student during her educational formation. “I was a good student and always passed my exams. But when I started representing Malta in my sporting career my education took a little pause. I used to take correspondence courses and other short courses since back then there wasn’t the facility to study and still do sport at a high level.”

“Unfortunately sport was a hobby for most people and they could not see the benefit of pursuing such a career. It was then, when coming close to my retirement, that I was thinking of getting back to University and to further my career academically. My Master’s Degree is actually based on how to improve the Elite Athletes educational aspect during and after their sporting career.”

At the time that Laurie started practicing, Judo was not that popular. So how did it cross her mind to go for the sport. “It was really a coincidence as a boy in our street had mentioned that at Centru Sportiv Marsa, which is SportsMalta now, they were going to start giving Judo lessons for free. Well I was very intrigued with a new sport and not having to ask my parents for money. The following Saturday I caught the bus on my own (I was 12 years old at the time) and put my name down. I never looked back since.”

And what followed is history, since Pace not only made a name for herself but also to our country. “From that first lesson I knew that this is not just a sport but a way of life. I started learning a bit of Japanese through the fact that all the throws, break falls and hold downs are all in this language.”

“I loved every minute of the sessions and was always looking forward to the next session with great anticipation. After one year of not missing one session I took part in the Malta national championships and won my weight category; once I got the first Gold medal around my neck I knew that this was my sport. In fact I won consecutively for 24 years – in my weight and in the heavy weight as well. Judo was the thing for me.”

Laurie went on to describe the good and the bad. “ There were a lot of good times and to mention a few, the training camps, travelling, competing, making new friends and the winning part both locally and abroad. Turning onto the bad times there were occasions when I got a few injuries, got sick and could not compete or when the referee favoured another country and I lost because of a bad decision.”

Pace dominated the local scene for a good number of years which put more pressure on her. “The pressure was only locally and during competition days. I never felt pressure during training or during competitions abroad.”

Attention turned onto her participation in the GSSE which yielded a lot of success and also medals. “For the Small nations, these competitions are very important as it is extremely hard for a Maltese athlete, with a limited budget and not enough competition, to reach world class ranking. The Games of the Small States of Europe help our athletes shine and show how strong and talented we are. I had the opportunity to take part in five editions as before these games were held only for men. Once the International Olympic Committee accepted that women can compete in the Barcelona Olympics for the first time, the GSSE followed suit and I was allowed to compete. I managed to win three silver and two gold medals for Malta in these games.”

But which are the particular moments that she still remembers and maybe made Pace proud? “By far the Commonwealth Games were the highlight of my career. Bringing home the first ever medal for Malta at these games was a big achievement. Another big and honourable moment was getting the Midalji għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika from the President of Malta.”

As just stated the highlight of Laurie’s career was undoubtedly the bronze medal in the 1990’s Commonwealth Games in New Zealand. “I was always training hard and this was no exception; I was chosen to represent Malta and I had nothing else on my mind but to go and do my best. When I was at the Games I had my first game against the Welsh girl; I had already played against her in Wales and she beat me. This time I went more prepared and managed to beat her. I remember going to shake her hand and thinking you win one and I win one and we smiled.”

“After that I had the English girl who was the current world champion at the time to play against. This was a much tougher match even though I knew how she played. She was very good and I lost against her which brought me to play for third place. I had to beat the Indian girl, otherwise I will go home empty-handed. I did my best even though I was so tired and my arms were feeling like they were going to drop off with fatigue. I took on this last match and I won.”

“I remember telling my coach I am really tired for the next match and he came to hug me and said Laurie you won the Bronze medal for Malta the first ever. Then I heard it on the PA system that I had won the first medal; I was over the moon and was so happy. I could not believe it. In the medal ceremony I was so emotional that a tear drop popped out.”

A step further up for Pace was the participation in a number of Olympics. “I was lucky enough to qualify for three Olympic Games – Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, all of which were the best experiences in my sporting career. I was a flag bearer in two and was very proud indeed to lead the Maltese contingent.”

“For all three editions I trained harder than usual but I can’t forget how well prepared I was for the Sydney Olympics. During these games I was mature and with a lot of experience under my belt. Stepping onto the Olympics Judo mat and facing your opponent seems scary but believe me, after all the preparations and four years of waiting, the thing you’d like to hear the most is ‘Hajime’ which means start, and off you go like a bullet of energy and expertise. The Olympics give you a sense of belonging and pride to be there among the very best in the world from all disciplines.”

Pace took the role of director within the MOC. What made her decide to do so? “When I was coming to the end of my career I thought that it is time to give back a little of my knowledge and help my country especially the up-and-coming athletes. So I put my name up for the elections for Directorship on the Executive board of the MOC. I was elected and I gave four years of my free time; voluntarily working in bettering Maltese Elite Sports. The following four years I was elected again and I followed for another term doing the same work and more.”

So what’s your opinion about today’s level of Judo and where are we heading? “Judo today is still a very popular sport. In Malta maybe the interest is not that strong. There are two factors which I think are the main reasons; a lot of different sports to choose from and it could also be because kids nowadays prefer to play on their PlayStation instead of practising a sport.”

But have facilities improved along the years or are we still lagging behind other countries? “Facilities have improved but the numbers have dwindled. Yet compared with other countries we lack in the progress.”

What is she doing nowadays following her retirement? “I used to be a full-time coach and personal trainer but now I do this on a part-time basis. With work, coaching and enjoying the countryside during Covid or travelling when we are allowed to do so again, I don’t have much more time on my hands.”

What importance does her family have in her life. “My family is everything and I love everyone dearly. I think indirectly and without knowing they helped me in my career by not stopping me and by encouraging me to always follow my heart. Whatever makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone, go for it.”

Diverting our attention to lighter things Laurie shared her favourite culinary tastes. “Any rice dish savoury or sweet and chocolate. I like healthy food and non-fattening foods but sweets are my downfall.”

And what about travelling preferences? “I like Asian countries for the culture, scenery and discipline. I’d like to visit Bali, Brazil, Costa Rica, Singapore and India. I travel a lot and most destinations will include a bit of adventure like ziplining, skydiving, canyoning, trekking in deep forests and kayaking.

As can be seen from the above, Laurie is an energetic and versatile person. So what about hobbies? I love cycling, trekking, home DIY and travelling. Those are my favourites when I’ve got time on my hands.

And what is reserved for winding off a day. “Believe it or not I like watching movies and that is the only time that you will find me sitting down.

Before bringing to an end this interesting interview with one of the all-time top athletes, Laurie passed a message which is worth noting. “Sports is not just a game but it’s a character-builder by learning the rules of life. There are wins and losses in life and you’ll learn how to deal with them, how to stand up when you fall and how to be happy with the glory. By doing sport you will be paving your life for the future; to be the strong and disciplined men and women of tomorrow.”

 

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