WHEN Nathon Burns travels to compete in the European Games at the weekend he will be hoping it will be a dress rehearsal for the main event - the Tokyo Olympics next year.

The judo ace from Blackburn will represent Ireland in Baku in his first multi-sport event. He is hoping his second will be on a much grander scale in Japan next summer.

“It’s pretty much a European Olympics so it’s a big thing,” said the 30-year-old. “For judo it is classed as our Europeans so it will be a big event.”

Judo is very much an individual event so Burns, who has represented Ireland since 2016 - the birthplace of his grandfather - is looking forward to being part of a team.

“I’ve done every level of competition apart from the Olympics,” he added. “But as far as a team, this is the first time I will have been in a multi sports event.”

“It’s a massively proud moment for me, it is a big deal, it is the first event I will be representing Ireland as a nation.”

Burns will get the whole athletes village experience but timings and other events mean he will miss the opening ceremony.

But he hopes it will put him in good stead for his main target.

“It is good timing really because some people go to the Olympics Games and the atmosphere and everything that goes with it can be quite overwhelming,” said Burns who competes at 66kg. “So it is kind of good to get a bit of a taste about what it could be like at the Olympics

“I’m going for a medal but it will also be great to experience an event like this and stay in an athletes village.”

Not that he will be hanging around for too long.

“I arrive midnight Thursday, weigh in on Friday, fight Saturday and I fly out at 6am Sunday. Then I go to Canada seven days later for another Grand Prix.

“For some people this will be the pinnacle of their summer but for me it is just another competition.”

While Burns’ Baku trip may be fleeting, his judo journey has been 14 years in the making - a journey he hopes will end in Tokyo next summer.

The former Our Lady and St John High School pupil left home at 16, spent 18months in the Midlands before joining Camberley Judo Club in Essex where he spent 11 years.

Now he is home in his beloved Blackburn and aiming to give it one last shot.

Burns actually went to London 2012 Olympics but as a training partner to Danny Williams when he was in the GB set up but missed 2016 due to injury.

Now he knows it is now or never.

“Basically I have got a year left to try and qualify so this is my last big shot,” said Burns. “There are about 10 or 12 competitions left and I will go to all of them if I need to get the points I need, I won’t stop until right until the end.”

Only the top 22 in the world qualify for the Olympics, a position Burns was in until a rib injury sidelined him for five months. He is currently around the 30 mark so he knows there is work to be done - but he does not feel under pressure.

“What will be will be but as long as I work hard and do my best, I will be happy,” he said. “So I wouldn’t call it pressure but I have expectations. That is where the frustrations come in after the comps where I haven’t fulfilled my expectations because I know I am capable of beating anyone.”

Burns admits it is a gruelling sport and can be a gruelling existence but he would not change it for the world.

“Last week, I went out to China, it took me three flights to get out there, I lost in the first round on a golden score and six hours later I was on a plane out of there, missed by connection and it took me 40 hours to get home.

“That can be tough but you can’t dwell on it. You just have to learn as much as you can from it then move on to the next one.”

Burns, who is sponsored by Frenchic Furniture Paint and Combat Nutrition, comes from Judo stock, his dad Joe runs Shadsworth Judo Club while his brothers and sisters have all enjoyed their own success in the sport.

Whatever happens next year, Burns will retire from competing and will turn to teaching judo alongside his dad.

And he admits it is a nice distraction from training and competing.

“It’s something me and my dad have always wanted to do,” said Burns. “My dad is my hero and he has taught me everything I need to know. Now I want to pass those skills on to youngsters once I retire.

“So we are busy planning for the future and working on a few different options. While it is still judo, it is a nice distraction from training and competing and it gives me something else to focus on.”

And when Burns finally does retire and turn to teaching, he would like nothing more to do it as an Olympian.

“If I don’t make it I will be heartbroken, gutted but I will be content,” he said.

“I know I have given it everything and if make it I’d be certainly confident of making a medal and bringing it home. If I don’t, I know I have had the opportunity and I go in to the next section of my life.”