If you watched the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, you have seen her. Likewise with Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. That’s right, five consecutive Olympics and she is about to make her 6th with which she will mark history and not just any. Telma MONTEIRO (POR) is about to become the ONLY European judoka to date, to make it to six sequential summer games. It is not something to be taken as a slight accomplishment. It is in fact, beyond extraordinary.
Before being swept away by the judo world, Telma would call herself a footballer. However, she was unmotivated on the pitch. Meanwhile, her sister and some friends were already well into Kano’s way and so at the age of 14, she joined the gang and traded the cleated shoes for barefoot. All this took place in her neighbourhood in Monte de Caparica, Almada. The majority of the four Monteiro siblings have been involved in judo one way or another. Whilst learning to understand the use of the ‘pyjama’, Telma shares her idols (as a youth).
I always really liked sports, so my idols were athletes. When I was little, I loved Michael Jordan and some Athletics athletes. In Portugal, I really liked Fernanda Ribeiro, who was an Olympic Champion.
So, what made you wanting to compete in judo?
I have always been naturally very competitive. I would count how many fights I would win by ippon, in a row. But the turning point was at the Junior World Championship, in Korea in 2002. I was in my first year of juniors. When I went to the junior worlds, I felt like I had to train more and also understood that if I did, I could be very strong. I didn’t want to be a name in the draw, I wanted to be so strong that people knew who I was when I walked on the carpet. That was the moment when everything changed because I realized my value, but also how much I had to train to get there. And that’s what I did.
Over 20 years at the elite level. You must have had plenty of ups and downs throughout. Any fights that still gives you discomfort when recalling?
I am at peace with the way things turned out in my career because I did the best I could with the tools and knowledge I had at the time. But if I had to choose one fight that I think could have had a different outcome, I would choose two. The World Championships finals in 2007 [vs Shi Junjie of China] and 2009 [vs Morgane Ribout of France]. With another level of maturity, I could have won.
Speaking of World Championships, you don’t often meet a judoka with 4 world finals. There is only a handful of them out there who are not residing in Japan. She is one of those. Five world medals total. In fact, Telma won her last world medal a decade ago. Placed at others since, which again, indicates the implausible resilience and consistency this judoka provides. To top that, she won 15 [senior!] European medals with the last being a title on home soil in 2021. Yet, your sweetest memory must remain from Rio. Right?
Winning an Olympic medal was a goal I always had since my first Olympic participation in 2004 in Athens. In the year of the Rio Games, I seriously injured my knee and had ligament surgery, less than 6 months until the Games. So in less than 6 months, I had surgery, recovered, and won the Olympic medal, 12 years after Athens. That made everything even more special. Being the flag bearer in London and Tokyo were also unique moments of my career.
Once again, over 20 years at elite level… you must have thought of quitting a few times. With such incredible achievements already, what kept you around?
I thought about giving up even at the height of my career. I have always been very demanding of myself; I have always wanted to be better. This meant that I was sometimes unable to enjoy my victories. And then at other times when I had a lot of pain while training and competing and I felt like I couldn’t be the best version of myself. However, always I thought about what I would feel if I didn’t give up and achieved my goal. Giving up on things is very difficult for me, in difficult times, I have a natural tendency to look for the solution instead of focusing on the problem. I think life has taught me to be resilient.
That is an understatement. Moving on, you wrote a book back in 2016, called Na Vida Com Garra. For those who are not aware, can you explain a little bit about it? Planning to write another one?
My book talks about my career but also about my life in general. All the lessons I learned and how it made me grow as an athlete and as a person. I wrote it before Rio, so it ended up being therapy for me. It is only available in Portuguese. I don’t know if I’ll write another one, but without a doubt I would have a lot to tell!!
Whilst you’re finishing another book, let’s walk down memory lane.
In Athens I was 18 years old, I had been doing judo for 4 years. The whole experience was incredible from the first moment. But I feel like I didn’t understand what was happening.
I loved the Beijing Olympic village, but the result was very tough. I had very high expectations and when I finished 9th, I was very sad.
As mentioned, In London I was a flag bearer and that was a unique and special moment, but it was also the biggest disappointment of my career, after losing the first fight. It was very hard to digest.
In Rio everything went well. I had people close to me and I felt a special energy. Something inside me told me I was going to make it. Winning the medal and sharing it with my team, friends and family was the best moment ever.
Even though the result wasn’t what I liked, I experienced Tokyo in a different way. I feel like I enjoyed everything more, the whole experience, and I had the privilege of being a flag bearer once again, which was a very special moment for me.
Fast forward to this qualification period, you have undergone an operation recently. What happened? How are you feeling mentally and emotionally? What motivates you right now?
During the first fight of the European Championship, I injured my knee and tore my cruciate and lateral ligaments as well as my meniscus. Right now, I feel good and motivated. But it has been a very difficult and demanding journey. There have been times when I felt very sad and frustrated. I have focused on small developments and see this experience as a challenge. My motivation is to be able to fight in Paris 2024, and thus make history with my 6th participation. This is my last year of competition and what keeps me going is competing in Paris, making history. And because I believe that I am still competitive.
Was there a chance to hold this operation off until after Paris or it would have been too risky? How much did your world ranking position at the time influence the decision?
I heard the opinion of several doctors. Unfortunately, there was no other option other than to operate. My injury was very serious. I tore my cruciate ligament completely. Rupture of the internal lateral ligament and injury to the external meniscus. Regardless of my position in the ranking, I would always have to operate. It’s a difficult recovery and I know that even so, I will have to make a faster recovery to be able to compete before Paris. Honestly for some, recovering in time to compete in Paris is “crazy”. But I have complete trust in everyone I work with and in myself. Something very strong inside me tells me that we will make it.
Okay, so let’s say we are in Paris, at your final Olympic Games, you are ready to go. Putting all elements into consideration, what is the goal?
After everything I’m going through, when I step onto the carpet in Paris, there are no limits, anything can happen.
Moving away from the dojo and getting to know a bit more about Telma as a person, she shares her joy of drawing, writing, photography, designs, and architecture. If being an elite judoka wasn’t on her cards, she believes she would be involved with another sport or linked to communication, marketing, or even architecture. Downtime also involves eating out, walking along the beach, Netflix or spending time with friends. Although retirement from her competitive life is soon calling, for now, this outstanding individual does not fill up her thoughts about the future.
I like to live today and think about the near future. And I just want to do everything I can to enjoy life to the fullest and be happy.
Captain Telma, having such an incredible journey behind you, what is that you wish your team would learn from you as a leader and role model?
I think that my way of being and dealing with various situations ended up being, in itself, an example. In fact, I think everyone should try to be the best version of themselves, explore their capabilities to the fullest, always give everything and remain humble whatever the result.
When the day comes and you say goodbye to full-time training as a judoka, you look back and reflect on what judo taught you overall;
Judo gave me a different perspective on life. For me, who grew up in a social neighbourhood, where opportunities and references are few, practicing judo was a door to the world in every way. Without judo, I would not be the Telma that I am today.
In 2022, during the Almada Grand Prix, Telma Monteiro was honoured by the Portuguese Judo Federation, the National Olympic Committee and local authorities which was personally gifted by Ines de Medeiros, Mayor of the Almada Municipality. Photo: IJF/Gabriela Sabau
FAN FACT SHEET
|Study / Qualifications
|Degree in Physical Education
Postgraduate in Sports Management and Marketing
|Biggest lesson learned so far
|Self-knowledge is the best tool to live better.
|One life, one opportunity, live it to the fullest.
|Steak with mushroom sauce
|Water and Coca-Cola
|Black, White and Pink
|Cats and Dogs
|I don´t wanna miss a thing – Aerosmith
|Outliers / Davi e Golias, both by Malcom Gladwell
|Day of the week
|Saturday, when I have the weekend ahead and can enjoy spending more time with my friends and doing things more calmly.
|Top 5 bucket list
|Competing in 6 Olympic Games
Going to Bali
Going to Sequoias National Park
Having a job that makes me happy
Author: Szandra Szogedi