From reality TV to a third consecutive Olympic Games, the path trodden by judoka Ashley McKenzie has always been unconventional - and that’s just how he likes it.
The 31-year-old has been selected one of six judo fighters to represent Team GB at Tokyo 2020, having previously made his Olympic debut at London 2012 and competed again at Rio 2016.
In fact, McKenzie has often stated he would be in prison if he hadn’t found the sport, which kept him on the straight and narrow despite his struggles with ADHD from an early age.
And having largely self-funded himself through reality TV appearances, the chance to represent his country again, in the birthplace of judo, means more to McKenzie than most.“Judo for me has changed my whole life. When I was a kid I had ADHD, I was excluded from all the schools, I was getting into fights and when I first started judo, I was around 11,” he said.
“I was in a special school straight away so for me, going to judo and having that thing in my life where my mum would love me to come home and medal was keeping me in school.
“I’ve always been honest to anyone who’s asked me this question, if I didn’t have judo, I would probably be in jail so going to the Olympics in Japan is really special.
“That’s where judo was created and for me it’s more special than for anyone else as it’s got me out of trouble and I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am without judo.
“To finally know that the Games are definitely going ahead and for it to be in Japan where judo was created, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
McKenzie made the final of Celebrity Big Brother in 2012 before appearing on the first series of Celebs on the Farm in 2018 and Celebrity Ex on the Beach in January 2020.
And the -60kg category fighter insists he wouldn’t change a thing about his approach to reality TV, explaining that the money he has earned from the shows has enabled him to compete.
“This is definitely not like Ex On the Beach, there will be no exes coming in, and no fans either so for me it’s basically me against another man and just about fighting your heart out,” he said.“It’s been hard getting to the Games but now the Games are here it’s positive and I’m grateful as there is not a lot of people who can leave the country and be able to compete.
“I think for me, I kind of needed those kind of things. I’m a self-funded athlete which means I support myself with all the competitions, I’m not a Lottery-funded athlete.
“They don’t pay for me to go on trips, I pay for myself and doing those shows definitely helped. I got rewarded money for doing those shows and that’s gone towards my judo.
“I won’t shy away from saying I’m a self-funded athlete either as I think that’s really important for everyone to know. I think those shows were really important in my time of qualifying.”
A Commonwealth champion and two-time European Championship bronze medallist, McKenzie will be hoping it’s a case of third time’s a charm when he takes to the mat in Japan.
But while he acknowledged that making predictions in judo is a fool’s game, he believes there is no reason for him to play down expectations as long as he brings his A-game to Tokyo.“Everything has to be right on the day for me to get gold. If I get a medal, I’ll be over the moon but the thing is with me, I’ve beaten every single one of the best fighters,” added McKenzie, whose Olympic exploits will be broadcast live on Eurosport and discovery+.
“If it happens all on the right day it could be a gold but I’ve also lost to the best as well. I know if I perform to the best of my ability, I’m well capable of coming home with a gold.
“If I don’t then I could lose in round three, round four or round five. It’s really up and down in judo because you’re against someone else and they could have their worst day on your best day.
“It really fluctuates in judo. It’s not one of them where if I run that time I definitely know I’ve got a medal because no-one else runs that time, I’m literally trying to grab someone.
“I’m trying to throw them on the floor and they are trying to do vice versa, but my expectations are that a medal would be amazing. If I get a gold, that would be madness.”