CHENNAI: Kerala is one of the sporting hubs in India. Of that, there is no question. But even God’s Own Country has been unable to raise the profile of certain sports among its residents. Judo was one such discipline. But over the past decade or so, Maria Lee has been doing her best to make sure the combat sport sees better times. And while results may not have been forthcoming, the development made by judokas under her wing has been encouraging.
“There’s no secret to our success, but we feel grassroots development is essential. Spotting talent at a young age and nurturing that athlete to reach his/her potential is what I believe in. And the judo scene in Kerala has seen a rapid rise since I joined in 2005. It helps that the state embraces sports like no other, as that ensures that there is always some interest among parents and children to give it a go, which makes our lives so much simpler,” Maria told Express on the sidelines of the recently-concluded J Jayalalithaa senior national judo championship here, where Kerala finished with a solitary bronze medal.
Her husband Tony Lee is also a judo coach, and despite retiring from SAI duty last year, he has been teaching at the Punjab Institue of Sports since. He may be Chinese by descent but has found much success and love in his country of birth. “Tony’s family had shifted to Kolkata, and that’s where he was born. Our job as coaches took us to many places together, and that’s how we fell in love. He’s one of the best judo coaches in the country and has had a big influence in my career as well. He’s currently in Chandigarh teaching at PIS, and we do take out time to meet up often. Retirement hasn’t taken away his love for the game,” Maria noted.
It isn’t easy for coaches from outside to come and make a mark, but Maria has been able to achieve that in Kerala. “I was a former judoka myself, so picking up the strengths and weaknesses of my players and helping them work on that was easy. Plus, I had prior coaching experience before the job offer came. But most importantly, the fact that the state sports council, government and state judo body are very much invested in making sure this project increases the profile of judo in the state has been of great help,” the coach concluded.