Friday October 30, 2015

Interview

Majlinda Kelmendi (KOS)

 

EAT. SLEEP. TRAIN       

 

Getting inside the methods of double world champion, Majlinda Kelmendi who suffered her first loss in IJF competition since February 2013.

 

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: It has to take an elephantine memory to remember when was the last time Majlinda Kelmendi finished a bout crouched on her knees before collapsing on her back despondent and beaten. It’s a hard sight to imagine but that is exactly how it came crashing down for Kelmendi in her semi-final contest with Erika Miranda of Brazil in the -52 kg category at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2015.

 

“I was having a good fight till that point but then I made a mistake that cost me the fight. I was disappointed but then it’s a sport and anyone can lose,” says Kelmendi after suffering her first defeat in almost 3 years.

 

2014 World Championship podium

 

Her route to the semi-final gave no indication that Friday would not be another glorious day for the Kosovar judoka. With a bye in the first round, she stepped on the tatami confidently and soon closed out a win through ippon against Evelyne Tschopp of Switzerland. Another resounding win through ippon came against Karolina Pienkowska. Miranda followed next and the unexpected happened.

 

“Everybody was looking at me like they did not know what to say,” recollects Kelmendi with a laugh when asked how she was greeted on her way back from the tatami. “I am not used to this (winning a bronze) but I am still coming back from injury and I am happy that I won a medal and can keep my recovery on track for further competitions,” she says after closing out a bronze medal win against Mareen Kraeh of Germany on penalties.

 

However, a loss notwithstanding, if the weight of expectations hangs heavy on her shoulders then she does a great job of not showing it. Or she doesn’t even have to try for such is her focus that it borders on the absolute.

 

“In my world when I train I need to be completely focussed,” she says. She has a disarming smile and a very kind gaze, something that her opponents might not agree with. It’s a gaze that is firmly fixed on the tatami while she takes a break from training and paces around frantically before resuming what she knows best.

 

“I don’t want to see people around when I train. I just focus on my training partners and visualize the next moves while I wait for my turn to resume training. The coach gives instructions on what is coming next and that is all I envisage while I am walking around,” she explains.

 

It is interesting observing the training of the Kosovar judoka and even more interesting realising that her regular training partners in Distria Krasniqi and Nora Gjakova are more than just that. They are close friends and neighbours, living within walking distance of each other back home in Kosovo. It is a dynamic that is visible in the warm-up area as they effortlessly flit between each other during training and explained better by their bonds that go beyond competitions. They know each other really well and form a tight little team where they look out for each other.

 

“I watch her (Krasniqi) during competitions even where I might not be present. At the recent junior world championships, I knew that she would win as she is stronger than others in the junior category and very strong even for senior competition,” offers Kelmendi by way of her opinion on the 19-year old judoka who was crowned world champion earlier this week in the -52 kg junior category.

 

Kelmendi being thown by Krasniqi during the warm up of today's competition in Abu Dhabi

 

“I have been training with her ever since I got into judo and she has offered me much more than just training advice through the years,” says Krasniqi with a certain gush in her voice that can only come with complete admiration. “She has taught me how to be confident in competition as she knows how to win and also on what to do a week before competition,” she further says. Ask her on what that training regimen entails and she answers with a shy smile that it means ‘less phone use and no going out’.

 

It is not that she preaches without practice. Kelmendi says that at 24 she doesn’t know ‘what a disco is or what a party feels like’ as her life is all about judo. Or more specifically about winning in Rio in August 2016. Life, as we know it, will follow afterwards, or at least the thought of it.

 

Winning comes easy to Kelmendi as her statistics show. So much so that she clearly remembered her last loss in IJF competition before Abu Dhabi, which came over 2 years ago. On February 9, 2013, to be exact. The winning streak has given her iconic status back home. She is the country’s biggest sports star, without question. And in the words of local journalists who track her, she is even the biggest name in the country. Her selection as the flag bearer of her country’s Olympic team for 2016 was a bygone conclusion.

 

“I feel responsible for my teammates and offer them my tips. The coach is responsible for the success that they experience but in a small way I feel like I have contributed to the same,” says Kelmendi when asked if she felt like she had a part to play in defining the futures of juniors like Krasniqi.

 

Success for the double world champion does not come without massive work done away from the dojo and the tatami. She studies all her opponents closely and knows their every move (‘as they do about me’ she says with a hearty laugh). “My notebook is filled with notes on all my opponents and I know everything that I need to know about them so that I can win,” she further says. Perhaps that explains why no one has been able to have the measure of her in over 2 years of competition. This steely will to win is rooted in her loss in London in 2012 to Christianne Legentil of Mauritius. “It was the worst phase of my life and for 3 months after that loss I found it hard to bounce back from it. Now I just go out to give my best and don’t think about the results,” she explains.

 

Abu Dhabi Grand Slam - Kelmendi, fresh off the back of her win in Paris, was looking strong as she powered past Tschopp in a rematch of the Paris Grand Slam final!

 

Due to the geopolitics of this world, Kelmendi’s story has reached farther due to where she is from. It only helps that she is a brilliant judoka and an example for sportspersons across the world, not necessarily from judo. So, does she feel that she is missing out on connecting with them and spreading her message by staying away from social media completely?

 

“Maybe, but this is not the time for social media. Maybe I will think about it after the Olympics,” as she clearly states that she has never thought of her life after judo. It is something that will just happen when it happens.

 

Before Friday, Kelmendi’s record in Abu Dhabi was remarkable, having never lost any fight in 3 competitions in the city. Heading into competition in Abu Dhabi. Despite the loss, Kelmendi ‘feels good, strong and confident’. A major reason for this is her tenacity to ‘train like a man’ and introducing unconventional methods of training like rock climbing so that she can learn to improve her grip and make it stronger for grappling on the tatami.

 

“I really like the atmosphere and people here in Abu Dhabi,” she says while signing off ahead of competition. It just helps that she is yet to lose a single fight here since 2011.

 

A day before the competition Kelmendi had a chat with the writer and when asked the question if she considered herself amongst the ‘invincibles’ of the sport she smiled while saying that ‘judo was a sport in which one mistake could lead to a loss’. It seems that fate and the law of averages finally caught up with her. And she promises to only return stronger from here.

 

Photos © IJF media by Gabriela Sabau and Jack Willingham

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