Gemma Howell’s senior judo career was launched with an appearance at a home Games so there was a certain symmetry that her final major outing also came in front of her nearest and dearest. 

The judoka from Stafford was just 22 when she competed at London 2012, the first of two Olympic appearances. 

Ten years on, Howell was one of the local heroes at Birmingham 2022, taking a brilliant silver medal for Team England in the 63kg category. 

Now, after 11 surgeries, the latest on a snapped bicep tendon, Howell knows that the time is right to call it a day. 

And while 2022’s European Championship gold in Sofia will go down as the highlight of her career, winning a silver medal less than an hour from where she grew up is also right up there. 

She recalled: “Walking out for the Commonwealth Games final in Birmingham was something else. There was the home atmosphere, I’m really sorry to everyone still that I lost the final. Walking out, I couldn’t hear the announcers say my name because the crowd was just so loud. I’d love to bottle up that sound and keep it forever because it gave me these goosebumps. 

“My friends and family got to come and watch. It was great to be able to share it with them.” 

It is testament to Howell’s resilience that she even made it as far as Birmingham. 

Getting back up off the mat is one thing, but picking yourself off the operating table is an altogether different challenge. 

And whether it was knee issues, her elbow, her arm or most worryingly her neck, Howell always came back for more. 

She said: “I think I saw my physio as much as I saw my judo coach. 

“I had a neck operation in 2018. That was the scariest one. The surgeon said to me there was a risk of paralysis. As soon as he said that, I thought I didn’t want it. He still said he thought I should have the operation.  

“When I woke up from it, I had tubes coming out of me and thought judo isn’t worth this, what am I doing? But then, somehow, you take it one day at a time, go back to rehab squad, surrounding yourself with people in the same headspace.” 

Howell came back from that and enjoyed a magical 2022 between European and Commonwealth success. 

But she knows the time is right to call it a day and focus on a new career, which will see her swap the judo mat for the classroom as she completes her training to become a maths teacher. 

She added: “I promised myself this year that I would put my health first no matter what happened. I had to make the decision based on the rest of my life. Judo has been incredible but hopefully I’ve got lots more years left where it won’t be in my life and I need my body to be attached together if possible.”