Nekoda Smythe-Davis on concussion, pregnancy and the mother of all comebacks
“I didn’t know if I’d make it back,” admits Nekoda Smythe-Davis as a smile breaks across her face. “After a concussion and having my baby girl, I just wasn’t sure, but I don’t feel I’m special. I’m just a hard worker.”
Smythe-Davis is proud, but humble, as she reflects on a gold medal-winning performance at the Riccione European Open – just her second international competition after an absence of nearly three years.
As she begins to reveal exactly what her journey has entailed, and the anxiety-driven “dark times” she endured, the extent of her modesty becomes even more apparent.
Smythe-Davis first shot to prominence at Glasgow 2014 by claiming -57kg Commonwealth Games gold, but it was her World Championship podium places – bronze in 2017, and silver a year later – which marked her out as a potential Olympic star come Tokyo 2020.
That, though, brought a new level of attention – and pressure.
“It was hard because people are not just hoping that I’ll go and do my best – they’re seeing my second Olympic Games as an opportunity to win a medal,” she recalls.
“That’s what they wanted, that’s what I wanted, and that’s why British Judo and UK Sport put so much money into me.”
A multiple Grand Slam medallist, Smythe-Davis had confidence in her ability to match those targets, but in late 2019 her world changed after taking a “bad knock” in training.
Concussions vary in severity, and although awareness of their long-term impact is improving, treatment is still largely in its infancy.
Smythe-Davis had access to leading medical professionals including neurologists, but it was near impossible for them to predict how long recovery could, or should, take.
“Anyone who’s been through long post-concussion syndrome will know how important treatment is for recovery and I had a whiplash with it as well, so there were a lot of issues with my neck and spine,” she says.
“The pandemic meant [rehabilitation] ground to a halt and just completely sent me into regression.
“I had a two-to-three-month period where things were really bad with migraines and then there were days where genuinely an accomplishment would be getting up and having a shower or taking the dog for a walk.”
As the Covid pandemic restrictions eased and training opportunities – as well as full medical support – returned, Smythe-Davis made tentative steps towards a return.
She still retained the dream of competing at the 2020 Olympics, which had been postponed by 12 months, but in January 2021 the judoka “reluctantly” came to the conclusion she needed to take time away to ensure a full recovery.
“I was in a really dark place and there was a lot of turmoil because I was scared to make the decision and didn’t want to let anyone down,” Smythe-Davis admits. “But at the end of the day, no-one was going to be as disappointed as myself.”
In August of that year, her life changed forever and “for the better” as she became a mother for the first time with the arrival of daughter Ryia.
“I’m very strategic in the way I’ve always viewed my sporting goals and when would be the right time to become a mother,” she says.
“I had a plan for after the Tokyo Olympics and making that decision at the time about not to push on after the concussion, that opened the door for me. I’m very fortunate that it happened quite quickly, I had a really health pregnancy and birth of my baby was good.
“It just gave me something else to focus on and she brings a whole new energy to our lives really, and to be honest I don’t think I’d want to continue in my sporting journey without her.
“The fact I have her now is almost what spurs me on.”
Just over a year after giving birth, the Rio Olympian made her competitive international return with a fifth-place finish in an unfamiliar -63kg division at the Oberwart European Open in early September.
A week later she went on to claim gold – in her traditional -57kg category – in Italy.
The 29-year-old did not compete at the World Championships earlier this month as she takes “baby steps” in her comeback, but will next target the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam on 21 October.
“Although [taking so long out] wasn’t my initial plan, it was the plan that needed to happen to ensure my longevity in the sport and also my happiness,” says Smythe-Davis.
“I’m trying to now look forward to the Paris Olympics in 2024, but to look back at where I was to where I am now, I’m really proud with my journey and myself.”