SPARRING with men almost twice her size has paid off in silver for mighty mum Claire Johnson.

The 29-year-old doorwoman from Dringhouses has returned from Lisbon with a finalist's medal after starring for England in the European Thai Boxing Championships.

She beat opponents from Greece and Turkey to reach the final of the women's 55-57kg category, and then lost only on points to an experienced Russian campaigner after five closely-fought rounds.

The championships, run by the International Amateur Muaw Thai Federation, feature the best Thai boxers Europe has to offer and, after Johnson proved herself to be at the top of the continental tree, she will now compete for England at next March's world championships in Thailand, the sport's spiritual home.

As reported in the Evening Press before she flew out to Lisbon, Johnson - who is coached by Andy Wilby at the Way Of Life Thai Boxing Camp based at Emperors' Gym in York city centre - often sparred with men nearly twice her size to build her power before her Portuguese test.

Wilby said: "She's the second best in Europe in her category, which isn't bad is it?

"She fought really well to get through to the final. The Russian girl who beat her to take the gold has had more than 150 fights in her career, while Claire has had less than ten."

Johnson's rise to the top has indeed been rapid. She only took up the sport two and a half years ago, having her first bout nine months later. She was quickly given national honours by England's Thai boxing officials and reached the quarter-finals of the world championships in Thailand last year.

This summer she had her first professional fight. However, the European and world championships are strictly amateur and Johnson is already seeking sponsorship to help her medal push next year. Anyone interested can contact her on 07929 439367.

Updated: 12:31 Thursday, October 31, 2002