Seoul, South Korea, 1988. An Olympic Games that would define the sporting career of Great Britain’s Dennis Stewart. As the 28 year old Dudley born lad stepped onto the mat for what was to be the pinnacle of his Judo career, Stewart fought and won Olympic bronze for his country. Success enough for some it would seem, this was just the beginning of the Stewart sporting legacy. Some 7 years later, Dennis became the proud father of baby boy Max, and a near quarter century after his own Olympic success, watched his son win his first major championship medal as he took home Silver at the European Junior Judo Championships last year.
The saying ‘Like father, like son’ rings no truer than when watching these two together. Playfully wrestling on the mat in what appears a routine training scuffle, I ask Dennis whether he’d let Max throw him to the mat for a photo. ‘No chance you’re getting that on camera, not for a few years yet’ he laughed. It seems true in many walks of life that the next generation, inspired by the legacy and success of their elders, often tread a similar path to the footprints left by their fathers. It would seem here that young Max has taken the first steps of his own Olympic journey, both inspired and led by his Dad’s wisdom and success. This hereditary influence has been true since the early days of man and its modern form is easily traceable in the world of sport; Many of the great British father-son legacies – Footballs Brian and Nigel Clough, Formula one’s Graham and Damon Hill and crickets Chris and Stuart Broad provide continual evidence of hereditary sporting greatness.
Last month, What Culture caught up with the father son duo at the annual C2 International Judo camp; an organisation which brings together the best junior Judo talent from all corners of the globe. Widely considered to be the best camp of its type in the world, this was its third annual meeting in as many years. Among the head coaches were Moscow Olympian Chris Bowles and double Commonwealth Champion Carl Finney. I spotted Max Stewart among a sociable crowd of a hundred or so athletes, coaches and parents. He seems an extremely popular young man amongst his peers, carrying a likeability factor which will pay dividends in his later career. Stewart was play fighting with a younger lad when I arrived, almost big brother-esque around his younger cohort. There are many similarities between father and son, both had a smile and a greeting for everyone couple with a relaxed, sociable manner on and off the mat. For Max, there are no signs of his reputation getting ahead of him.
Commenting on his European Silver in Brussels, the young lad from Birmingham said ‘Even though I was disappointed not to win the gold, It was great to get a Silver medal. I’ve studied the guy who beat me in the final, so next time I should beat him’. The 18 year old impressed in the preliminaries in the Belgian capital last year and was competition favourite going into the final. His Dad remarked ‘There are so many different styles in Judo which vary from country to country. When you lose to an international opponent, it can happen so quickly that you don’t get a chance to learn from it. That’s why this camp is so good, the British juniors get to practice against some great international opponents and learn from their mistakes again and again’.
But what of Max’s plans for 2012? Speaking realistically about his chances of Olympic qualification, the young man appears under no pressure to compete in London if he’s not ready. ‘There’s a big jump between the junior and senior rankings, and being 18 there’s a lot of big strength differences I need to adjust to, so the best thing I can do right now is compete in lower level senior tournaments and build my way up over the next few months’. Realising that his overall development could take time and patience, Stewart seems unphased by the impending rush to improve in time for a home Olympics this summer. After all, his father didn’t capture Olympic bronze in Korea until the ripe old age of 28; Spring chicken Max shows maturity beyond his years in realising that patience could be the making of his long term career. ‘When the time’s right I’ll go to an Olympics, if it’s this year, so be it, my aim would be to qualify and get a medal, but we’ll just see what happens.’ But that’s not to say he’s hanging around, far from it; Stewart currently holds the title of British number 1 and world number 5 in the Junior Under 73KG rankings; His success thus far stands firmly in its own right. However, viewed alongside his father’s pedigree in the sport, it begs the question of just how far young Max can go.
‘People are always saying that I have to do better than my Dad, but I don’t see it as pressure, it’s just good fun, trying to win competitions that he’s won previously and things like that’. There can be no argument that the two share a fantastic father son connection and there is a bond present that no coach, however experienced, could forge with an athlete who was not his own flesh and blood. ‘My Dad’s a great role model, a great coach’ Max remarked, ‘I’m always with him, so we have a lot of time to talk tactics; When we’re on the mat he’s my coach, when we’re off it he’s my Dad’.
It is clear to see that this young man will grow into an already broad physique, naturally increasing in size and strength by the time he is out of his teens. Add to this the skills, senior experience and the best mentor he could wish for, Max Stewart will be good in London, and formidable in Rio. Could he repeat the success of his father? Absolutely. He could even go two better.