Kosovan head coach Driton “Toni” Kuka has always been of a positive nature, but for many years he did not have the general framework and the necessary funding. In 2023 life is different for the 51-year-old. The workaholic and self-made success coach does not need to be a one-man-show anymore. Judo has become a priority for the local government. For the next five years a total budget of 15 million € is guaranteed. Driton Kuka can use (parts of) the money to pay assistant coaches like Olympic champion Majlinda KELMENDI, club coaches as well as judo experts for school projects. Moreover a training center is supposed to be build soon (construction work to be started this year, project period: 3 years).
There is a lot of good news for Judo Kosovo these days. Driton, how happy are you with the current situation, just before the start of the IJF World Tour 2023?
I am really happy right now and confident, that the upcoming season will be a good one for us. Distria KRASNIQI changed to the -52kg category after Tokyo and she managed to become a top-3 athlete within a year. She came quite close to the top stars ABE Uta (JPN) and Amandine BUCHARD (FRA). They are both extraordinary athletes. Distria still needs some more time to adjust. But she won in her first year the Masters title as well as World Championships and European Championships bronze medals. A weight category change is not so easy, you have to deal with different athletes, they all are heavier and stronger. You have to adjust your training and your physical shape. I am absolutely positive, that Distria will be a strong medal contender for the Olympic Games in Paris 2024. This is great news.
What about the other Olympic gold medal winner from Tokyo, Nora GJAKOVA?
Nora was off after a shoulder surgery for about six months and she came back really strong, winning two medals at Grand Slam tournaments. OK, she did not win any title in 2022, but -57kg is a real tough category with lots of top athletes being capable of winning. I call it a killer category! So Nora can be proud too. For both Olympic champions, Distria and Nora, we will not push a hundred percent this year. It’s more about improving technically, tactically and physically. Paris 2024 is the ultimate goal for both of them. We want to win medals such as in Rio and in Tokyo, no matter what colour. For Kosovo each Olympic medal would shine golden – as we have 1.500 Judoka and a population of 1,8 million people only. The road to Paris is our top priority. But of course the World Championships in Doha will be the highlight of 2023.
Who else on your team (beside Distria and Nora) should be able to achieve top-results this year?
Before the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 we had two top-athletes, before Tokyo five. We are constantly growing and improving. Laura FAZLIU (-63kg) is an athlete to watch. She won a silver medal at the Masters in Jerusalem, she definitely has big potential. But she still has to change her mentality. Now she is in professional business, not under-18, under-21 or under-23 categories anymore. Laura could possibly win a World Championships medal in Doha, but she could also loose her first fight. Majlinda is working with her a lot. Not to forget Loriana KUKA (-78kg) and Akil GJAKOVA (-73kg), Noras brother. Like his sister he is just coming back from an injury break. In total we have up to 15 seniors in the team, which is not bad. We deserve to win lots of World Tour medals. And in Los Angeles 2028 we will definitely qualify for the Mixed Team competition. For Paris I would be surprised, if we qualify as a team, four years later it should be no problem. Currently we are working with 50 athletes – from cadets to seniors – on a daily basis. I am absolutely positive, that we will be succesful for the next 20 years or so. Thanks to the programme KOSOVO JUDO NATION we are in a great position. In three years time we will be welcoming top athletes to our new training centre. This will be the next important step.
You received a lot of job offers after Rio and especially after Tokyo. Is a coaching job in a foreign country a personal option for you?
I love my country. And it’s great to see, that Kosovan Judo is constantly growing. I like to share my work with my assistant coaches. I can easily promise you, I will not have any problem, if coaches like Majlinda one day will be more succesful than me. I guess, if this happens I will be celebrating on the stands. Or back home in front of the television set. I can’t see myself as a coach for a foreign country.
After Tokyo you spoke frankly about the need to slow down a bit. How do you feel right now? Would you say, that you have now more time for your family and friends, that your work-life-balance has improved since then?
At the Masters in Tokyo one of my assistant coaches asked me: Are you not enjoying our medals anymore? Of course I still do, I am as emotional as I used to be, but I am not as stressed as I used to be. I am learning to delegate work and share tasks. My working style became healthier without doubt. Stress for me means travelling, not being at the training ground. I definitely travel less than I did before Tokyo.
Author: EJU Media