On the 15th of November 1990, the Czech Republic’s first judo Olympic Gold medallist was born. Namely, Lukas KRPALEK. What should we know about him? Well, little Lukas was born in the city of Jihlava, located towards the South-East of the country. Whilst there is no doubt about the physical location of his birth, it is perfectly possible to have mistaken Lukas for having some sort of Antarctician background given his immense passion for ice-hockey. The first time he touched down on any icy surface was at the age of 5 when his grandfather took him for a day out when they spent the day doing a bit of ice skating. Like every other child, Lukas followed his new passion and from that moment onwards, the minute he escaped from school, every single day, he met with his friends on the frozen local lake. That routine of ice hockey has not stopped and remains a burning interest up to this day.
But playing ice-hockey was simply not enough to reduce the amount of energy Lukas had. It was for this reason that his uncle, accompanied by Lukas and his elder brother, Michal, decided to pay a visit to the local karate class. At the time Lukas was 6 years old. After a few months the boys quiet liked the ‘karate classes’ they had been attending not knowing they were actually practicing judo! Whether by default or design, their uncle had ensured that the Krpalek brothers could call themselves judokas of SK Jihlava. So, having eventually acknowledged the sport they were passionate about, Lukas and Michal decided to take their journey to the next level and began to attend judo classes a little further out from their town which meant a return journey of 120km each time they wanted to train.
Ice-hockey vs judo was still a topic in the family with Lukas at the age of 15. It was around this time when his parents decided for him (as Lukas was still more into ice-hockey) to stick to judo. Ice-hockey was in any case beyond the budget and it was this which helped to strengthen the case for judo. This decision was made close to the time when Michal (Lukas’ brother) won bronze medal at the 2005 Cadet European Judo Championships. This acted as a turning point in Lukas’s life and he has admitted this was the moment when he started to realise that it is actually possible to make a success of judo.
So this was it, Lukas Krpalek began his professional judo journey at the age of 16 with a big decision of moving to Prague and training at one of the major centres. Of course, his parents were nervous and, as a matter of fact, they at first said no to the idea of moving to Prague. But eventually, a year later, they gave in. Lukas was ready to undertake the mission. He knew exactly what he needed to do in order to succeed and it involved moving to Prague. This was a journey he felt he had to take and so it began. For the first two years he stayed in a boarding school before moving to the centre for five years. It wasn’t at all smooth in the early days. But less than a year later Lukas earned his first salary as an elite athlete, and yet, there were still times when he asked himself what he was doing there as the watchword, ‘ice-hockey’, kept on niggling away in his mind almost daily. It got to the point where Lukas almost quit judo for ice-hockey. A little persuasive influence from coaches and parents helped Lukas to stay on track and reinforce his belief that judo was his rightful home. Ice-hockey remained a constant distraction and at that stage the Olympic Games was an unforeseen goal.
“During those years in Prague I never went to train having the Olympic Games or such in my mind. I just went everyday with the target of giving my maximum effort in each and every session. All I have ever known is that hard work pays off.”
Lukas considers his golden performance at the 2009 Bucharest World Cup [now listed as European Judo Open] as his first remarkable success.
The year 2015 was a roller coaster for Lukas. Not only did he have to overcome several injuries but his best friend, Alexander Jurecka, who was almost like a brother to him, passed away. The pair had spent their entire Cadet and Junior years together and besides, when they had time, they were friends away from judo. When he [Sasha] passed away last year in Italy during a scuba diving holiday, it really hit the whole team, but especially Lukas given their long friendship. In 2016 the team began to focus on winning gold for Sasha and for the strong friendship they had enjoyed with him. In memory of Sasha, Lukas, when receiving his Olympic gold medal, held a photo of his departed friend.
National coach, Petr Lacina was the one who took initial responsibility for Lukas at the age of 16 when he moved to Prague. Petr is quick to point out Lukas’s values as a very friendly and calm person. Petr has also stated that Lukas is a great man on and off the mat. In the video below, Petr expands in greater detail on his thoughts.
Lukas Krpalek was an Olympian before winning the Olympic Gold. In 2012 Lukas participated at the London Olympic Games where he finished seventh. Thereafter, Lukas won numerous tournaments across the globe with the latest achievement being an Olympic Gold in Rio de Janeiro.
“To be honest, my actual Olympic Dream began at the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when I saw two athletes competing there whom I had defeated before…and the idea of winning an Olympic medal did not hit me until after London 2012.”
It didn’t take long before Lukas expanded on his thoughts about London 2012. He openly disclosed that when he saw his draw, he knew that he was probably facing one of the hardest day of his life. In London, Lukas defeated Anai Takamasa of Japan to win a spot in the quarter finals. However, from there, it all went downhill with back-to-back losses.
First to the eventual winner Tagir Khaibulaev of Russia against whom Lukas had a nightmare as the Czech judoka led the contest until the very end when he tried to waste a bit of a time in newaza and he got caught by the Russian. Lukas admitted that it was not until the 2014 World Championships in Russia, where he defeated Khaibulaev, that he was able to forget about his loss against him in London. In the repechage it was Henk Grol of the Netherlands who ripped from Lukas the last hope of winning a first Olympic medal.
Four years down the line and the majority of the Czech Republic Olympic crew were chanting ‘Lukas, Lukas, Lukas…’ at the Carioca Arena 2. Not only the Czech team, but many others joined the tearful celebrations and the success of a great champion and a wonderful man. The outcome was joy, yet the triumph was a fairly shaky road. What happened that day?
The 11th of August… the day which changed Lukas’s life forever. He was up early, nice and bright in preparation for the day just as at any other time at any other tournament. The Olympic Village was the only place where there was peace before the Olympic battlefield. Leaving from there in the morning is a moment Lukas will most probably never forget. The transportation area was akin to the front line where everyone was ready for the clash. Mixed emotions with mixed thoughts were on display thinly masked by deadly serious poker faces. ‘Will I return with a medal or without?’, ‘What is going to happen today?’ or ‘Is it my time?’ … Questions such as these were flying around in the air and in a matter of hours they would all be answered. Whilst this may have been the case for many athletes, for Lukas it was something else. He explained that for him there was a lot of pressure way before the Games. He also expanded, adding that for years and years he used to struggle with nerves and ended up transferring all the pressure onto himself. This had resulted in his often under-performing. He changed his attitude for the first time at the 2016 World Masters tournament where the pressure-free mode worked and, as he said, he was able to deliver according to his potential a tactic that he did not change prior to the Games.
Being seeded number three on the day allowed Lukas to start off with a bye during the first round and left him to wait for the winner of the contest between Mohammad Tawfiq Bakhisi of Afghanistan and Jorge Fonseca of Portugal. This time around the draw brought mixed emotions to the Czech fighter. Overall it looked better than in London, yet it was tough enough right away from his first round. Lukas was soon to face the Portuguese Fonseca.
“I really don’t like to fight against shorter opponents, which, in my case is difficult as I am quite tall myself. Even though I was behind by a yuko I knew that my advantage over Fonseca was my level of conditioning. I knew that if we went all the way to the end I’d probably win by penalties if not by a score.”
Maxim Rakov of Kazakhstan was up against Lukas next where another outstanding tactical contest helped the Czech judo hero to progress into the quarter final stage where he met Haga Ryunosuke of Japan. Lukas and Haga had never fought previously. Yet Lukas had his game plan prepared.
“I watched Haga several times and over the years I understood that he doesn’t like left sided players and so I had to force his weakness onto him to win it.”
The plan certainly worked out as Lukas was soon in the semi-final where he faced Cyrille Maret of France to whom he had lost recently. Reaching the semi-final meant that if Lukas was to win at least one of his two remaining contests, he would be an Olympic medallist in Rio 2016.
“Of course I wanted to be in the final but I guess I was strongly focused on winning a medal in the first place and gold was yet a bit surreal... I lost against Maret previously so I went out there like I had nothing to lose, I went all out.”
The hard work paid off as Lukas mentioned earlier and it certainly did so once again as his focus remained robust for the day and with another precisely performed tactical contest Lukas had made it to the final and in the process was certain of securing his first Olympic medal. The only question left was what colour that medal was going to be? Elmar Gasimov of Azerbaijan was the last man standing from the top half of the draw as Lukas had reached the final from the lower half. The stakes were too high to lose.
“In the final, I was focusing on being the more active player. Gasimov was surprised because I started off strong and I could feel his shock. I think this strong start gave me the upper hand for the rest of the contest so I literally just had to stay focused in my head.”
‘The winner and the 2016 Olympic Champion is Lukas Krpalek of the Czech Republic.’ Thousands and thousands of people cherished the moment when stadium announcer, Luis Torres, confirmed the winner of the -100kg at the Carioca Arena 2. The stadium was in an ecstatic state. There were tears of joy, euphoric emotions hit the rooftop as the Czech team rushed down from the upper to the lower part of the spectators’ area which for them was off-limits. But at that moment it did not matter...In fact, nothing mattered but Lukas and the Czech Republic’s first ever judo Olympic Champion. This moment remained the only golden memory for the Czech Republic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“It was the second best feeling of my life after the birth of my son. Even until today it is a bit unreal. Every time I think about it I still have goose bumps. Being in the final meant a lot to me and I wanted to give my best... I didn’t realise I had become the Olympic Champion until I walked up to the podium but even then, to be honest, I had incomplete memories of the day. Not only because it was overwhelming and surreal at the same time but also because I suffered mild concussion as I hit my head during the final.”
Lukas picked up his phone to first call his brother, Michal, who missed his call. The first one to hear the voice of a fresh Olympic Champion was Lukas’s wife, Eva: “I watched the day of the tournament at the gym with friends and family members. I was crying so much… I couldn’t believe it.”
Upon his return from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Lukas received an unforgettable welcome from his nation. It was not until his arrival back home that Lukas realised how ‘big’ he had become. At the same square where he used to walk through to go to school there were thousands of people waiting for his arrival to celebrate his success. Lukas admits that winning the Olympic gold has completely changed his life. Yet with every success there is a price. Since his legendary accomplishment, Lukas doesn’t leave his house unless he has to, and as his wife explained places such as the cinema and shopping malls aren’t on the list anymore. Lukas also added that his plan as a role model is now to get the youngsters off the computer and into sports.
It is either you have said it or heard it several times, ‘There is life besides judo’ and we often speak about Olympian mothers, however, it is rare that anyone mentions about Olympic fathers. In this case, Lukas was an Olympian daddy before becoming an Olympic Champion. It was a month prior to the Olympics when blessings scattered around the Krpalek family on the day little Antonin was born.
“The baby helped me to realise and appreciate that there is more in life than just fighting and winning.”
Lukas’s dog, Oli and his cat, Mlika are also part of the loving family. When time allows Lukas likes to go for a walk with the family by the lake nearby where he also spends time fishing. Lukas studied as a carpenter, however, as a future profession he would imagine being a coach or a fire fighter. It was time up for all of us at the Krpalek house as Lukas had his training session to attend.
Lukas achieved everything an athlete would wish to achieve in their career…European, World and Olympic Champion. He has got all three of them. What is next on his bucket list?
“I literally won everything I can in the -100kg category so I am moving up a weight class and excited to face new challenges.”
The moment Lukas finished his sentence, an immediate question was blasted at him. Have you fought with Teddy Riner before? Lukas responded,
“Yes I fought with Teddy several times and I know it is a real big challenge but why not give it a shot?”
Interview, Video, Pictures: Sören Starke, Annett Böhm
Writing: Szandra Szogedi & Sheldon Franco Rooks
Interpreter: David Volek