Slovenia’s first ever World Judo Champion, Tina Trstenjak was born and raised in the city of Celje. It was in this town with a population of a little over 35,000 inhabitants where Tina was introduced, by accident, to judo in 1998.
“We used to drive pass by the dojo when visiting my grandparents and, of course, at the time I didn’t know what it was but I always saw that there were plenty of cars parked there. I suppose I was fascinated by the full car park and very curious about what was going on inside the building.”
Tina kept on asking her parents to pull over to see what was happening inside and they promised her to do so every week, hoping she would forget it by the following week. However, Tina never forgot about it and the day finally came when she had the chance to step onto the tatami of the Judo klub Z’Dezele Sankaku Celje.
Tina loved it there from the first visit. Before judo, she had practiced several other sports such as athletics, swimming, climbing and even table tennis. She also did dancing and since there was a rule in the family that said if she started anything she must do it at least for a whole year. Her mum, Silva Trstenjak further explained that Tina was taught not to just quit things; she had to finish the whole year. Tina further explained that during all those years, whilst she participated in many other sports, judo had always been her number one.
It was at the age of 13 when Tina made her final decision and picked judo for good. She stressed the fact that judo was so different to any other sports and this fascinated her. Her father, Boris Trstenjak used to be a goalkeeper of the local futsal team and her mother trained athletics but neither one them did it as a profession.
Tina’s mum can recall memories of the day when Tina decided to stick to judo. She confessed that judo was the only sport that she wasn’t actually enthusiastic about for her daughter, yet she saw that Tina had settled with her heart and soul and, like any other parent would do, she supported and will always support her throughout her journey. Tina recalled her memories at the time of choosing judo:
“When I made the decision of staying with judo I didn’t know it was going to go this far, until professional level. Everything kind of grew with me without much planning. But I remember, when we were young, everybody wanted to be like Lucija [Polavder] or Urska [Zolnir].”
When asked about her role-model, Tina immediately responded with one name, Urska Zolnir. It was at the age of 14 that Tina had her first Olympic experience watching on television Urska compete at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games where her life time hero won bronze.
The Slovenian history maker first won bronze at the Junior World Championships in 2008 a feat that she repeated in 2009. She considers that first step as the beginning of her international career. Shortly after winning her second Junior World bronze, Tina stopped training for a little while due to struggling when switching from junior to senior, a fact that she attributes to results not coming her way at the time. Eventually, with the support of her parents and coaches, she returned to the dojo.
Every journey involves ups and downs often on a daily basis. Tina trains two to three times per day, six days a week, which yet again, requires serious physical as well as mental strength. There are moments when you are going to ask yourself ‘What am I doing here?’ or furthermore, “What am I doing to myself?’ It is how you overcome and manage those moments that is crucial.
“Of course, I also have and have had those days sometimes when I do ask myself what am I doing, but this is normal, everybody has those moments. I am lucky to have the support of my parents and also with Ana [Anamari Velensek] we talk through these feelings and these moments when they occur.”
During all the years of training Tina considers the preparation for Rio 2016 as her hardest times, both, mentally as well as physically. During that period it was training, training and more of it with a high demand for mental focus. In addition, Tina suffered a rib injury about six weeks before the big day.
“It is really hard but you clench your teeth and get going. During the competition I still had pain but the adrenaline helped me to ignore the pain during the contest.”
Athletes face a unique set of pressures throughout their careers, from winning every day battles, a constant desire and need to perform well, all in the face of the media whilst meeting, often high, expectations. During the preparation phase, whilst battling with injury, Tina confessed to consciously pulling away from the public in order to be completely ready mentally for every and each of her possible contests. To push the boundaries and strengthen her perceived shortcomings, the special mental focus involved Tina leaving her mobile phone behind a month prior to the Games in an effort to minimize any possible media distractions. It was during this period of mental preparation when Tina cried enough tears to fill a river and when the support of her parents was at its strongest. Her mum, Silva, recounted the weeks prior to Olympics, “Seeing your child coming home in tears is never a nice feeling. But first you need to listen always, and then find out what is bothering them. Based on that you are then best placed to offer advice…Before the Olympics is was extremely hard for the whole family whilst we met and overcame every phase. Tiredness, crankiness and pressure, it all built up and at times burst out.”
“When I woke up, I felt like I was going to any other competition. I was mentally very well prepared, I knew months in advance that people would expect a medal and yet I didn’t allow myself to be distracted by those thoughts…I believe my mental strength is one of my strongest values, something that sets me apart and above many others”
Recalling the 9th of August Tina explained that everything was planned meticulously prior to the Games, in detail. It helped not having to worry about little things such as where to train or where to eat. Tina also had her fighting plan ready for every single one of her possible opponents. All of this was prepared prior to the Games and involved her spending hours with her coach looking at videos to organize all possible game plans.
On the day, being the top seed and world number one, Tina had the benefit of a bye in the first round. She than faced Edwige Gwend of Italy, which Tina recalls as the hardest contest. She believes the first round is always the hardest regardless of whom one has to face. It was during that contest when Tina’s dream of an Olympic medal was almost ripped away when an action by the Slovenian judoka that could have resulted in her being disqualified was decided in her favor. At the end of the contest, it was two penalties picked up by Gwend that allowed Tina to move forward to the next round and a place in the quarter-finals.
“I didn’t even realize that they were actually talking about me so it never took me out of focus and even after that I wasn’t thinking of it because as I said I was not aware that the discussion was about me. However, once I won the gold my coach told me that I could have been out…”
Yang Junxia of China had to bow off and settle for the repechage after losing out against Tina. Unexpectedly, the semi-final saw Tina facing home favorite, Mariana Silva of Brazil. Throughout the period of the judo event in Rio, whenever a Brazilian took to the tatami, the home crowd brought the arena to a state of high emotion, therefore, Tina needed an extra set of focus.
“I expected a very tough fight. I knew that the public would be on her side but luckily, when I am fighting, I don’t hear anything from the outside world.”
The Trstenjak vs Silva semi-final ended in style as the Slovenia judo ace won by the full score, Ippon. There it was, the moment of truth. Tina Trstenjak in the final of the 2016 Olympic Games, in exactly the same weight class as her lifetime idol, Urska Zolnir who had won Olympic gold four years earlier. Clarisse Agbegnenou of France came through from the lower half of the draw and sensed the opportunity on offer. The pair had fought on five different occasions before this final contest and up to that moment, it was 3:2 for Agbegnenou. Tina had the opportunity to both even up their head to heads and to win Slovenia’s second Olympic gold medal in judo. The final contest ended up being the shortest of all as an error by Agbegnenou allowed Tina to show one of the most powerful aspects of her game, newaza. The osaekomi was called and Tina was 20 seconds away of becoming an Olympic Champion! Just over 20 seconds after that moment thousands witnessed the referee signaling Ippon and at the same time, the same number of people saw Tina’s smile for the first time on show.
“She [Clarisse Agbegnenou] is the one I really don’t like to face because of her strong technical skills and she is physically also very strong. I didn’t expect the final to be over that quick… When winning the final, it was like a huge amount of weight lifted off my shoulders, it was closer to the feeling of flying.”
Up until the winning moment, Tina had not spoken to her parents for almost a month and, having no mobile phones with her, there was no immediate means of contacting them. However, someone else had prepared ahead for this moment…a local radio station. Tina had no clue what they were up to and as she was going through the normal routine of interviews right after the final, someone on the local radio station asked her if she had contacted her parents yet. When she explained that she’d been without a mobile phone for a month, (a fact that the radio station knew about) she was asked quickly ‘What if he could call her parents for her via the radio?’ Tina grabbed the opportunity and admits to be being grateful for the miraculous mobile phone moment. So what does it feel like to be an Olympic Champion?
“On the day, I understood I had won it, but in all honesty, it didn’t sink in even on the podium… I have to say it is still something I am trying to digest.”
Tina didn’t really have time to soak up the full Olympic experience as, once the gold was around her neck, she was ready to go home as soon as the judo tournament was over. Leaving the Olympics early didn’t matter for the Slovenian judoka for several reasons. One of which was that she had already been to Rio and, due to the fact that she spends the majority of time abroad, returning home was rather a relief for her.
Upon her return, a massive crowd of family, friends and supporters were waiting for Tina and the successful Slovenian. A gigantic tent was erected to fit them all in. Tina’s father arranged his daughter’s favourite musicians, a crew called Modrijani, to be on stage. The band is the most popular folk music band in Slovenia. For Tina, it all came as a surprise yet a very pleasant one. Following the celebration in her hometown, she treated herself with a well-deserved holiday accompanied by her family in Greece.
European, World and Olympic Champion waking up at 5am every morning for training. What else is there for motivation?
“There are still tournaments I have not won yet and if I get the chance I want to repeat my successes all over again.”
Life off the mat for Tina is rather about recovery and relaxing. She likes to have a walk in the countryside when time allows or just listen to music to switch off. Tina finished her studies at the School of Economics and as of now she is employed at the Slovenian Ministry of Finance. Tina declared that if she had never taken up the sport of judo, she would probably have become a PE teacher in a local school. However, this isn’t the plan when her career comes to the end. In fact, Tina has no plans as yet off the mat, for now, as she described, it is all about judo.
Judo klub Z’Dezele Sankaku Celje has produced five Olympic medals of which two just happen to be gold. The club was opened in 1992 and has around 600 members today. It was Tina’s role model, Urska Zolnir who won the first ever Olympic gold in judo for Slovenia. Four years down the line and Tina recaptured the same success within the same weight class. Both athletes, Urska and Tina, achieved their success in the hands of the club owner and head coach, Marjan Fabjan. We asked him to explain what it is like to work with the pair of them?
“We are talking about two completely different people in terms of personality. With Urska, I was able to tell her certain things in a friendlier manner whereas with Tina I had to be at a distance. In terms of sizes, Urska is taller, Tina is lighter and their techniques are completely different. Also the way of communicating with them is completely different. I needed a whole year only to observe Tina at her trainings and this is why I decided for Urska to be her [Tina’s] coach for the first year. But we all know that it is highly unlikely that a former champion will raise a new champion, indeed there are very few cases of this happening. Therefore, the decision of changing coaches after a year was a good decision to make at the time. I can tell that Tina and Urska are completely different but both of them have the best qualities in life that I know of, and they are both wonderful girls.”
Fabjan, further explained about his successful work in detail and began by mentioning the changes during each Olympic cycle and how good coaches should be able to adapt to. He emphasized the importance of always inventing something new in order to adapt to the changes.
“You have to forget everything you have done in the past. For each Olympic cycle you have to start with a clean slate.”
Fabjan’s philosophy is mostly hard work and is based on the fact that you never copy anyone else’s work but you walk your own path. He also clarified the importance of having your system and knowing your goals.
“Nothing should interfere in achieving those goals, you just have to walk your path and you will definitely reach your destination.”
Tina certainly began to walk her own path, one that has successfully allowed her to gain all three titles an elite athlete would ever dream of. Have a look at the video below to get a little more insight with regard to Tina as a person as well as a judoka.
Interview, Video, Pictures: Sören Starke, Szandra Szogedi
Writing: Szandra Szogedi & Sheldon Franco Rooks
Interpreter: Nina Lilek