FOR a tiny nation of just 1.3 million people, Trinidad & Tobago boasts a rich sporting heritage. The twin islands just off the coast of Venezuela gave the world Brian Lara, one of the finest cricketers of all time, footballers Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy, and sprinter Ato Boldon.

Now Gabriella Wood wants to add her name to that list. The 22-year-old is doing things differently, however. Eschewing her homeland’s more traditional sports, Wood is on a mission to become the first female judo player to represent her country at an Olympic Games.

The long journey she hopes will ultimately lead to Tokyo this summer has taken her from the Caribbean via Hungary to Scotland where, under the keen eye of coach Lee Calder, she has emerged as an Olympic contender. This weekend’s Paris Grand Slam will give a further indication of what she will need to do to book her place in Japan.

There is a sharp intake of breath as she contemplates the notion of becoming a pioneering figure by making it all the way to the greatest stage from the humblest of beginnings.

“Oh my. That would mean a lot. I have put everything on hold for this. The last few years of my life have all been about this. If I could be the first female judoka to represent Trinidad & Tobago at the Olympics well…..that would be very special. It would be a really proud moment.”

It would also be a far cry from the early days when even just explaining what judo involved was a regular time-consuming exercise.

“Judo is not very popular in Trinidad & Tobago at all,” she admitted. “There are probably a maximum of 200 people who do it in the whole country. Maybe not even that much.

“The government back home tends to focus on cricket, swimming, football and athletics. Those are the main sports. There isn’t much attention for judo or other martial arts.

“When I started out doing judo nobody really understood what it was. People kept asking me, ‘what is this sport?’ They didn’t know what it was about so I had to keep explaining it.

“My goal is to qualify for the Olympics and hopefully along that path it will help raise the profile of the sport back home.”

Wood inadvertently landed in South Queensferry 15 months ago and has yet to go home. She met Calder on a trip overseas with the Scottish national team and credits his training for bringing her to this point. If Trinidad & Tobago was where she got her judo education, then Scotland has been her finishing school.

“I had just finished a three-month judo camp in Hungary and my travel agent had only booked me a ticket to London, rather than all the way home,” she explained. “So I went to London and then on to see my brothers in Scotland.

“While I was there I did a couple of judo sessions at Ratho and just stuck around. It wasn’t my plan at all to stay. I was supposed to be going back home.

“I met Lee a few months later and working with him has really helped bring about a massive improvement in my judo. He’s helped me focus more on my strategy and techniques. And he’s showing where I’m going wrong, fixing those errors, and emphasising what I’m doing right. So his coaching has really made a big difference for me.”

And now Tokyo is approaching fast. Wood is in line to claim one of the continental spots but needs to maintain her form between now and the May 30 deadline.

“Well, reality is setting in now,” she added. “It’s right there around the corner and time has flown by so fast. But I’m really feeling really good. I have solid plans set out for the year.

“Our goal right now is to get through on the continental quota which means I have to be the top in Pan-America. Right now I’m sitting in that spot so I need to maintain that. And if I can get above that and into the top 50 in the world for outright qualification then even better.

“To compete at an Olympics in the home of judo – well, it wouldn’t get much better than that.”