Surreal but familiar: Aoife Coughlan’s Tokyo experience

This article was first written for and published by Siren Sport

When Aoife Coughlan’s parents Paul and Jean met decades ago doing judo at university, little did they know that they were starting a connection to the sport which would continue through their children.

Coughlan first set foot on a judo mat at age five.

Her parents had made the decision to move to Australia years earlier and fortunately enough moved to Traralgon which was within 20 minutes of the nearest judo club. Her two older brothers were already participating in Judo and naturally, Coughlan wanted to follow in their footsteps. Her little sister, Maeve (who is not so little anymore) also followed her sister and to this day, Maeve and one of Coughlan’s older brothers, Eoin continue to compete.

“Judo is something I am very grateful to share with my family,” said Coughlan.

“The sport has kept us nice and close and each other’s lives, that is something really special.

“I can’t thank them enough for the support and encouragement they have given me over the years that I have been competing.”

Coughlan has had plenty of success in the sport to date.

As a junior, she competed at the World Championships and then in 2015 she went on to win the Oceanian cadet title and also the Oceanian Junior Championship.

In 2017, Coughlan won bronze at the 2017 European Cup in Bratislava, Taipei Open, Hong Kong’s 2018 Asian Open and the 2019 European Open in Prague and in 2021, finished fifth at the Doha Masters which is the highlight of the international judo calendar (after the World Championships and Olympic Games). Later that year, Coughlan also claimed bronze at the 2021 Asian-Pacific Judo Championships in the women’s -70kg category.

Last month, Coughlan became the second one of her siblings to compete at an Olympic Games. Her brother Eoin represented Australia at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Aoife followed in his footsteps with her debut Olympics in Tokyo which she describes as a “surreal experience”.

“It was very surreal when I finally arrived after everything that had happened over the last two years and all the speculation as to whether it was going to go ahead,” said Coughlan.

“Then it was over just as quickly as it had begun because we weren’t able to hang around too long.

“I’m so grateful for the experience and especially to the Japanese Government and all the volunteers who helped put on the Olympics in such a safe manner.”

Coughlan had many special moments during her Olympic campaign.

Meeting Jess Fox on the night of the opening ceremony and having a chat with a woman that was such an inspiration to all the debut athletes.

Rooming with Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar who would go on to claim a silver medal in the women’s beach volleyball and also just being around the other Australian athletes.

But what was comforting for Coughlan was that when she entered the arena to compete, it all felt very familiar.

“When I got to the judo venue, I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be,” said Coughlan.

“I stepped inside, looked around and realised that it was just judo and this is what I know how to do.

“It’s just like the other competitions I have been to and there were very familiar people around me. It just felt normal.”

Watching on whilst she competed were her family, the people who started it all.

Coughlan has a large extended family and her parents organised a Zoom streaming party with people from the United State of America, South Africa, England and Ireland all in attendance.

Coughlan has no idea what her life would be like if she hadn’t jumped on a mat at age 5, so it should come as no surprise that she already has her sights set on the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. Qualification will begin for judo next year following the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

But until then, Coughlan has plenty to keep her occupied.

Last year she finished a double degree in Exercise Science and Sport and Recreation Management at Victoria University. This year she has started another Bachelor in Exercise Science and aspires to become an accredited exercise physiologist, which will also require her to do her Masters degree following completion of her current degree.

“I am so glad I stuck with my studies, even though my first double degree took seven years,” said Coughlan.

“It is so important for me to have something that I love just as much as judo in my life.”

Coughlan will hopefully have a long career ahead of her. She is 25 years old and will look to stay in the sport for about another eight years depending on how her body holds up, that’s if she is still passionate about judo.

“I can’t see myself giving up any time soon because judo has just been such a huge part of my life,” said Coughlan.

“I can’t see myself not loving judo.

“Every fight is a different challenge and a different puzzle to figure out.

“Judo keeps me thinking, keeps me adapting and keeps pushing me to be better; I will never be perfect about judo and that is what I love about it.”