Among a series of store fronts, children in judogi are filtering down some side steps and through a brightly lit doorway, energetic and looking to get on the tatami as fast as possible. Walking in, already you hear the laughter of very young children, aged between three and six, playing games and learning how to move their body whilst the next group prepares for their session.
There are four coaches on the tatami already with 17 children, and leading the session of the Kukolj Judo Team is Tanasije Savić.
Kukolj is of course referencing Aleksandar Kukolj of the current Serbian team, and now, alongside a successful career he can also boast a club of around 200 members in three facilities, with six coaches in total; Aleksadar Ristić, Luka Novaković, Mihajlo Savić, Stanka Savić and Matija Ilić.
. This hasn’t been an overnight success, the club was established in 2019 and has grown with hard work, growing their membership mainly through social media, word of mouth and some contact with schools.
Interestingly, the two younger groups in the organisation are purely education based with no competition option. Speaking with the son of Tanasije and coach, Mihajlo, he explained,
In the younger groups, they are 3-6 years and then 6-8, we want to use judo for education, we have seen clearly how important it is for the youngest judoka to simply be happy. We want them to have a good experience, to learn an activity that will benefit them in all of their lives and to build friendships.
Mihajlo has great experience as a former competitor, also a former member of the Red Star Judo Club and a team mate of Kukolj.
It is a family feel here, my father has been in judo for a long time, both my parents were involved with Red Star since 2003 and are professors of education, another way I am following in their example now that I am studying in university. I have been coaching since last year as I picked up an injury and it tied in with my study.
The family connection continues with former athlete, and president of the Serbian Judo, Ivan Todorov, the uncle of Mihajlo. Within the federation, this is a commonality, the goal to increase membership, to increase the popularity of the sport and to establish judo as a core element of society. This Saturday, we will see four Serbian teams go head to head, chasing the European Club Championship title, whether it be in the Champions League or Europa League, and one athlete just happens to be coach Matija Ilić in the Kukolj Judo Team. From this club alone, 300 tickets have been bought for the event, which goes to show just how big the fan base is here for the sport.
Author: Thea Cowen