They say that an arrow can be shot only by pulling it backward; so, when life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means that it is going to launch you into something great. This belief perfectly describes MAJLINDA KELMENDI’s Olympic Journey. She has been through tough times; times when she had to hide her tears and retreat to a space of her own. The Olympic Gold medal she won was certainly not handed to her on a silver platter. Majlinda Kelmendi was born on the 9th of May 1991 in Peja [Kosovo]. At the time, Peja was part of Yugoslavia, before becoming part of Serbia. The Balkan country was eventually able to claim independence in 2008. Kosovo's Olympic Committee was established in 1992 and was only recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 2014. It was during this period that Kosovo’s first ever Olympic Champion was raised.
Majlinda was always known as a quiet girl and, since her childhood, she remembers herself as always being a very happy girl. After school, she used to spend lots of time at home with her mother and only occasionally would she venture out to play on the street with a few friends from school. She also recalls that her family was never rich by any standards but nevertheless lived a nice life. Whilst Majlinda was playing outside with other children, her elder sister was attending judo classes at the Ippon Judo Club, a short walk down the road from their home. Majlinda’s sister used to ask her to come along but Majlinda kept refusing to go. At the age of 8, her senior sister finally ended up dragging her into the judo club.
“My sister called me every day. She kept on saying it was fun but I didn’t want to go because, like I said, I was quiet and I didn’t want to meet other people… It was not my cup of tea to be honest and at the beginning I didn’t even understand what they were doing.”
Two weeks into judo and the team was heading out to Sarajevo for a judo trip, including Majlinda. It was the first time for every single one of them to go abroad without their parents. For the first two months, Majlinda had been borrowing different kits from different people and not until after the Sarajevo trip was she given a judo jacket with a belt (she’d been practising without trousers!). It took quiet a long time before she was able to get a full kit into place. In 2006, Majlinda returned to Sarajevo to stamp her name into the record books after by her first major international medal at the Sarajevo Open. At that time, she was competing under the Albanian flag. The following three years became ‘make or break’ moments. From 2006 to 2009 the journey wasn’t at all smooth, especially with regard to Majlinda’s representative country. When it was time to shine on the European stage, she would compete under the Albanian flag, whilst when competing on the World stage she was obliged to wear an IJF (International Judo Federation) back number. Before proceeding any further, we asked Majlinda to express her thoughts regarding those years,
“I always say that we are the same people [Albania] and we speak the same language. We have the same traditions. However, of course I always wanted to represent Kosovo because I was born here and everything started here, in Kosovo…in this small city. Albania has like 100 years of independence but Kosovo is a new country and I always wanted to be the one who promotes Kosovo and to show the world that my country is good, the people are good and we also have talented kids.”
In 2009, Majlinda wrote another remarkable page in the judo journals. Primarily by winning her first Junior European title in Yerevan (Armenia) under the Albanian flag. Within less than a month, she doubled her joy and won the Junior World Championships in Paris (France), where she represented the International Judo Federation. A year later, in 2010, she defended her Junior European title in Samokov (Bulgaria). It was in the same year when Majlinda won her first Grand Prix title, which happened to be held in Tunis (Tunisia). During 2011, Majlinda was acknowledged as being among the elite when she began winning World Cups (now called Continental Opens) and IJF World Tour medals on a regular basis. In November 2012, Majlinda won another European title, this time in the U23 age group. However, there had been a significant event taking place months before that, one that left an indelible mark on Majlinda’s psyche. The London 2012 Olympic Games, aka, the Biggest Show on Earth.
Even now, years after the event, Majlinda recalls that day as one of her worst nightmares. One of the reasons, explains Majlinda, is that before London 2012, where she represented Albania, she was treated rather like a hero. On the day of the competition, Majlinda first overcame Jaana SUNDBERG of Finland. However in the contest that followed, despite being in a leading position, Majlinda suffered a shock defeat against Christianne LEGENTIL of Mauritius. Indeed, it was by every expert completely unexpected.
Upon her return from the Olympics, Majlinda suffered depression for several months. She revealed that she cried constantly and felt as though life had become so very unfair to her.
“I trained a lot. I believe I was good enough and I didn’t feel it was fair to lose like that. What happened then is that when I returned home, I spent too much time on social media and I saw so many bad words and bad things written about me. Before the 2012 Olympics, I was a hero and upon my return, I felt as though I was nothing. One day I woke up and decided to begin everything all over again with a new chapter. I was no longer bothered about what people thought or said about me. I was just going to focus on judo and enjoying my career. From that moment, on, I was able to get back into winning mode.”
In 2013, the International Judo Federation, for the first time, recognised Kosovo and granted their athletes representation on the World stage. For the first time ever, Majlinda had the opportunity to wear a Kosovo back number. This she did at the 2013 World Championships that happened to be staged in Rio de Janeiro. On the 27th of August 2013, Majlinda was announced as the first ever World Champion for Kosovo in Judo.
“I felt very good and honoured when the IJF accepted us and I was able to represent Kosovo for the first time. It was even more overwhelming to win gold right away and I think I just proved to the world that what Mr. Marius Vizer said was right. The President visited us, he saw everything and he said, at lots of meetings, ‘They are talented and good and deserved to be in the judo family and at international competitions’. He gave us a chance and right away, at the first time, I took gold. It was great.”
The fascinating story continued… On the 9th of December 2014, the International Olympic Committee announced that, for the first time, Kosovo would be able to participate as an independent country at the upcoming Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Majlinda, and the rest of the judo crew was in Peja that day. She described exactly what happened on that very dear moment.
“Well… On that day, we were at training, we just started training like 20 minutes ago when our coach, Toni [Driton Kuka], said ‘let’s go to my house and watch what is the decision.’ So we all went to his house and sat in his living room and when they announced that Kosovo was going to be part of the Olympic Games we were all in silence; no one was talking, we were all just looking at each other.
I remember Toni was crying and I said to myself, finally, we are not going to have problems anymore. It is really hard when you go abroad and you have think about more than just your fights. I said to myself: It is done, now it is a new story! I was more motivated because when I represent Kosovo, whether I win or lose, my people always love me and proud of me. I was motivated and I just wanted to go for competitions and win because I knew my back number will be Kosovo.”
After the disaster of London 2012, Majlinda experienced another crisis in her life. It started early in January when she attended the Mittersill Training Camp in Austria. The plan was to get ready and deliver a strong performance at the upcoming Paris Grand Slam tournament. Towards the end of the training camp, Majlinda caught a cold that set her back and restricted her training for 2 full days. She managed to bounce back for the last few sessions which, looking back, she wishes she had not.
“It was the last day, last training session and last fight. I got injured. I was very tired and 2 days before I’d been sick. On the last session, I did 13-14 fights. Toni told me to stop but I insisted and told him I had to fight because I had to be ready for Paris Grand Slam and I hadn’t trained for two days because of being ill. It was then and there that I snapped my ligament. When we received, the MRI results I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do or what to think, because luckily up until that point, I had never had such a big injury. I was in a panic.”
Three days after this disastrous moment, Majlinda had surgery. She then stayed at home for four more days before heading to Slovenia to begin her rehabilitation. She remembers everything was happening at a very fast pace that was rather scary and confusing for her. In Slovenia, Toni could not stay with her so she had to do everything on her own for two full months. It was only when left alone that she actually realised what was happening. Self-discipline as well as self-motivation became crucial at that stage. Majlinda was staying in a hotel in Slovenia for the period of time, using taxis every day as a means of transportation and training 6-7 hours per day.
She did what she could in order to get back on the mat as soon as possible. After those two months of rehabilitation she felt good, she said her leg felt perfect and the rehabilitations worked well. The nightmare was over and she was ready to go again. When she returned to Kosovo she started training every morning at 7am to make sure she completed all her physio exercises before the actual session began. She would do her physio from 7.00-10.00am and then train up to 12.00 with the team. She had exactly the same routine for the afternoon. She would complete her physio exercises from 4.30-6.00pm and then do the scheduled training with the team until 8.00pm. This meant her spending the majority of her time in the dojo.
“I have to say when I go to training I cannot go there and just give 60%-70%. If I am in the dojo, I give all that I can, 100% of myself. It is either I go all out or don’t do it at all.”
Even though, Majlinda was on route to a very successful recovery, there came yet another challenge, something totally unforeseen, yet another test to see if she had learned from her mishaps. It was another Sunday training day when Majlinda suffered a slight back pain. Once again it was Toni who warned her that she should take a rest and perhaps a day off. Majlinda repeatedly insisted that she was fine and told Toni that she needed to train.
“The second time that I made the same mistake. Looking back, I knew I was doing too much. Too much weightlifting, too much training. Just too much of everything.”
On that particular Sunday, there was nothing serious to worry about, however, the true extent of the damage would surface a few days later when Majlinda went to do her weightlifting session with one of her team mates. She explained, she was lifting weights like she was a -63kg or -70kg competitor.
“It was within a split second and the pain shot through my neck down to my left shoulder. I screamed for my team mate saying ‘take the weight off’, ‘take the weight off’. Once the weight was off, my left arm went numb for like 20 mins. All day I had pain and I said to myself ‘it’s okay, it must be just some muscle pain’…
“…In the evening, I came home, and as I was moving around completing different house duties when all of a sudden I lost balance. The second time around, when I entered my room, I fell into the middle of the room. I didn’t know what was going on, I just screamed and the pain was terrible but I could not tell you where was the pain exactly coming from. It was in my back, in my chest, in my head, my left arm, I just felt it everywhere. I screamed, ‘mum, mum, mum’.”
Majlinda remembers her mum desperately wanted to help and tried to lift her up but due to the serious pain she told her mum not to move her at all. To make matters worse, Majlinda stubbornly refused to accept that something serious could be wrong. She explained that despite the fact that she was unable to sleep, she didn’t go to the doctor for about three weeks because she still believed it was just bad muscle pain. Once Majlinda made her way to the doctor, the result of an MRI scan showed that she had discus hernia; not only in one place but several. This resulted in irritation on her nerves around her neck that caused the severe pain that she was experiencing. The following three months saw Majlinda unable to lift anything, even a glass. She had no power, she explained. Nevertheless, she eventually became restless and began to train again.
“I don’t know why I started training. I was not ready, really not ready. I started some therapy, when the doctor said if I don’t do the surgery then in 5-6 years I would not be able to walk, and I would be in my bed unable to move. It was a really hard time. In the end, I got healthy but the hard part is to stay strong and get back mentally.
"During this period, I was in tears almost every single night behind closed doors. If my mum or Toni asked me how I was or if I had had a good sleep I would tell them yes I am fine. But in fact, at my very best, I managed an hour sleep, that was all ...
"...During those nights, all I could think of was that ‘I have to train’, ‘I have the World Championships in Astana.’ I know it wasn’t smart, I should have gone to the doctor, not worrying about the World Championships when I couldn’t even move my fingers...
“…There were days when I wished to fall asleep and never wake up again…
“…Not until after Rio 2016 did I tell Toni what was really happening during those days and when I told him we both cried. Those days were certainly the hardest day of my life.”
Before getting injured, Majlinda was widely considered untouchable and led the World rankings confidently. She wanted to come back on the mat in exactly the same shape and form as she had left. It was during this period, when she recalls an article written about her where they stated she was number five in the world. She remembered seeing this article for the first time was rather like a shock to her. She was hoping that perhaps she had dropped down to number two but never imagined going down the ranking list that far. This piece of news caused her, again, to have a lack of sleep. Majlinda admitted to the fact that she is not the type of the athlete who will return to the mat and accept losing just because she was injured. This was never an option for her, yet seeing herself down the list was rather frustrating.
During 2015, Majlinda received both positive and negative news from the world regarding her return to the mat. She knew that some people were waiting to see her lose upon her return, and some of her opponents were not afraid to voice their opinions, stating that things would not be the same when Majlinda came back.
“I went crazy when I heard these kinds of comments but it helped to make me a much stronger person and made me forget about everything that had just happened to me…
“…Nevertheless, I have to add that there were positive stories too like when Clarisse Agbegnenou (she is an exceptionally nice person by the way) came to me upon my return to the first tournament and said: ‘I know you had pain, I know you were injured, but it is all in your mind. You have to forget this. Your body did not make you a champion, your mind made you a champion.’ – I was thinking about this all the time again and again and I convinced myself that it is really all in my head. I came back stronger than everybody expected. I proved that it is hard to break me, both, physically and mentally because I train a lot and sacrificed a lot and I do not accept to lose.”
The 7th of August 2016 was the day that Majlinda Kelmendi had waited for, the day when she could return to the Olympic stage with an opportunity to wipe all tears away from the disaster during London 2012 and to replace all disappointments with victory and pride. Majlinda had to win 4 contests in order to become 2016 Rio Olympic Champion. The road to gold started off when she defeated first Evelyne TSCHOPP of Switzerland. Her second contest was against London 2012 dream breaker, Christianne LEGENTIL of Mauritius. Yes it was indeed ‘that’ Legentil.
“I remember, before the contest against Legentil, Toni asked me ‘Who are you going up against next?’ I replied: ‘Legentil from Mauritius’. Toni immediately responded; ‘NO! You are going to fight like you are going up against Nakamura!”
This conversation certainly helped Majlinda and with some outstanding tactical as well as technical work she was through to the semi-final, where she did indeed face NAKAMURA Misato of Japan.
“Against Nakamura, I was extremely nervous. I was looking at her in the warm up area and I saw her playing games on her phone and she seemed super cool and relaxed which just made me even more nervous.
“Having said that, facing Nakamura was a privilege since she was my idol. I used to watch every step of hers, how she moved, what she ate, just literally everything about her. This was the first time we faced each other in competition, and to tell you the truth, I would not have been satisfied had I won the Olympic Gold without having had to fight Nakamura, because for me, she was the best in the world…
“…When I won the World titles in Rio 2013 and Chelyabinsk 2014 Nakamura was not competing and every time I said to myself I still have one person to fight against to be really the best in the world… and that was Nakamura.”
Majlinda’s win consigned Nakamura to the bronze medal which meant Kosovo has definitely earned their first Olympic medal in history. There was one contest left for the day. The final of the -52kg category, where Majlinda was facing Odette GIUFFRIDA of Italy. The Kosovo judo ace had fought the Italian on four previous occasions only having lost once, and she remembers being fairly nervous and felt a bit stressed.
“When we started the contest, I just said to myself I want to win. Whatever it takes and however I can I wanted to win, even if it is by one single penalty. When I scored for yuko within the first minute, I knew I have it in the bag …
"When the time was up and I heard the referee saying ‘Sore Made’, I could not believe it. I remember I was looking out for the President of the International Judo Federation, Mr. Marius Vizer to thank him because he helped me a lot to be where I am today. He believed in us, and he helped us. I wanted to thank him, but I could not find him…
“…I couldn’t believe I had become Olympic Champion. I walked off the mat crying as I was approaching Toni at the side of the mat…
"The feelings and emotions I felt in Rio will certainly be the best memories of my life but there are some things you will never forget…for me it is London 2012 and the year of 2015 will always remain among my worst nightmares.”
Between Majlinda’s winning moment and the stage when she returned home, she remembers having to attend interviews pretty much at every TV channel that existed in the world! Upon her arrival to Kosovo, there were lots of people at the airport. Individuals were there not only from Pristina [the capital] but citizens had driven up from all different towns to the airport just to see her. Upon arrival, a big bus with Majlinda’s picture on it was on standby to take the new sporting legend around Pristina. Whilst driving through the capital, people were chanting her name. She remembers it as a very special moment.
“It felt like the whole country was celebrating and I think this medal lifted their hopes.”
When Majlinda got back to her house it was full. She explained that she didn’t know anyone but simply saw the house full of people and all of them kept saying ‘congratulations’. After a little while, spent mainly with unknown people, Majlinda slipped away to her room and locked the door. It had been a long trip, a long day, an incredibly long week and she was exhausted. At around 2am her mother knocked on her door and when she opened the door a six year old girl stood there, shaking and crying.
“I didn’t know her. It turned out they were in town but she hadn’t been able to see me, therefore, her mother had driven all the way to our house just to have a chance to see me.”
Despite tiredness and the fact that Majlinda did not have a clue who the little girl was, she made an exception and let her into her room.
“I closed the door and for hours we were just looking at all my medals, just me and her. She was so cute and she started to cry when I asked her if she was okay? She said, ‘Yes, now I am fine’.
Judo has the power to provide individuals with extraordinary things. Judo has eight values that make up the moral code that Sensei Kano believed to be of supreme importance in the development of a judoka. His objective, above all others, was that judoka should become honourable and valuable members of the community they live in. Majlinda has been through a lot on and off the tatami, therefore, to question the importance of judo for her was vital.
“It is different when you do judo for money or because you love it. Judo is my life, and I am not saying it only for the sake of the interview, I mean it. It is for real. I do nothing else, I only do judo. After training I go to university sometimes or to visit my grandmother. This is all I am doing and I have lived like this for 15 years. I want to succeed. I love it and I enjoy it and I don’t need to do anything else to be happy because I have everything I want. I don’t do it for money neither for me to be famous. Without judo, I don’t know what or who would I be today.”
“Even though, I am European, World and Olympic Champion, I still want to go back and win it all over again.”
Interview, Video, Pictures: Szandra Szogedi, Sören Starke
Writing: Szandra Szogedi & Sheldon Franco Rooks