Sports | Monograph

Grappling with greatness

By - 16.03.2017

The latest judo star from the Ippon Club in Peja knows exactly what it takes to beat a current Olympic champion. She trains with one every day.

Distria Krasniqi was only 17 when her judo coach, Driton ‘Toni’ Kuka, decided to take her to an International tournament in Geneva in 2012. The tournament was for senior judokas, but her coach wanted Distria to be exposed to strong competition at an early age.

Watching on in the stands, Toni let out an involuntary murmur of appreciation, followed by excited exclamations at what he was witnessing: “Look at Distria’s judo!” He was obviously impressed by her moves, and Distria’s performance in competitions since has justified his excitement in Geneva.

In 2015, Distria came home with a gold medal from the under-21 World Championships in Abu Dhabi, overcoming Georgian fighter Mariam Janashvili in the final, and leaving Astride Gneto of France in third place. Just over a year later, she added another gold medal to her collection at the under-23 European Championships in Tel Aviv.

Distria is quickly becoming the biggest star of her generation. At just 21, she has won eight medals as a senior fighter from events on the World Judo Tour, a series of international competitions organized by the International Judo Federation (IJF), which are secondary only to the World Judo Championships. Her performance on the tour eclipses all of the judokas she fought in the junior championships — Gneto and Janashvili have just one each.

"We make our country proud. It is a special feeling."

Distria Krasniqi

Despite the immense achievements in her career so far, Distria is a quiet person, who does not prize herself above others. She spends most of her time training hard with her team mates, and her schedule is tough — a minimum of two sessions a day, six times a week. Occasionally she adds a third session, depending on instructions given by her coach.

Being a professional judoka is a way of life, especially when training at the Ippon club in Peja, the gym that produces champions. None of the club’s serious competitors have social media or go for nights out, and their diet is strictly controlled.

“It is a sacrifice that does not necessarily come with a prize,” Distria says. “You can do all of this and not win. It is difficult mentally, you wonder if you are on the right path.”

She admits that it is not just mental stresses that accompany a life centered on judo. “It is difficult to have friends outside judo circles, as you have to follow a strict schedule,” she reveals. “But I think it is all worth it — with or without medals. We must be the most well travelled people from our city, maybe even from the whole of Kosovo. We have exciting times, and a life full of challenges. We are very healthy and we make our country proud. It is a special feeling.”

Krasniqi from the Kuka school

Distria is part of a team of judokas that have made an indelible mark on Kosovo’s sporting history, all forged on the tatami in the Asllan Qeshme neighborhood in Peja.

The club is led by Toni, whose career as a competitor was cut short by the Balkan wars of the ’90s. He was scheduled to participate in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, just as war broke out and Yugoslavia was placed under sanctions. An invitation was sent to Peja, inviting him to participate with the Bosnian team, but Toni hesitated to travel for fear of being arrested and forced to fight in a war he felt was not his own.

He set up a Judo gym in his house and started training, first with his neighbors, then with other people from the city. After his incredible success developing the Peja based team, his gym now features judokas from Albania and Austria, and receives visits from renowned teams from across the globe.

Distria at the Ippon judo club in Peja, where she trains with Olympic Champion Majlinda Kelmendi. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

All of Kosovo’s early judo successes have been borne out of the Kuka school, and were spearheaded by Majlinda Kelmendi, currently the reigning absolute champion in the under 52 kg category. During Kosovo’s debut at last year’s Olympic Games, Majlinda won the gold medal, lifting the country up to 54th place in the worldwide Olympic medal rankings, above countries like Austria and Portugal.

Majlinda’s success began when she became world junior champion in 2009, and continued with a series of triumphs at different competitions around the world, helping ensure that judo is comfortably the sport in which Kosovars have found the most success internationally.

It’s not just Majlinda bringing home the medals. Nora Gjakova has already won two bronze medals at major competitions (the 2015 European Games in Baku and the 2016 European Championships in Kazan) and now, in Distria, another new star is already beginning to shine.

Finding the right division

Distria started practicing judo as Majlinda’s sparring partner. Her training ran parallel to the world champion’s, learning the art whilst serving her team mate. Initially, Distria competed in the under 48 kg weight division, filling a gap in the Peja team, as there was no fighter representing it at this level.

She put a lot of work into maintaining the low weight required to remain in the lightest division, cutting down on food and abiding by a strict diet. Though there were results here and there, Distria could not compete as strongly with such a strain on both her psyche and physique. She was forced to move up a weight category, and compete in the same division as her superstar teammate.

One image especially captured the public imagination in Kosovo — a medal podium filled by two Kosovars, Majlinda atop with gold, Distria clutching bronze.

“If I could fight at 47.9 kilos, it would have been better for the team, and much easier for me as I would not have been in direct competition with the best judoka in the world,” Distria explains. “It would have been easier to secure a position at the Olympics. I gave my best, eating less, training hard, fighting with my nerves and controlling the amount of water I drank. It was a nerve wracking exercise.”  

She views competing alongside Majlinda as both a privilege and a challenge. “Now I get to meet my team mate in different competitions, and sometimes share the podium with her.”

Meeting Majlinda

It was back in Geneva in 2012 that Distria grabbed the attention of her coach, but it was in Paris in 2017 that she began turning the heads of the public, after her performance in an IJF Grand Slam competition in February.

After the Olympic Games, the Paris Grand Slam is the most attended judo competition in the world, as the Bercy indoor hall is regularly filled with more than 12,000 spectators. Images from the 2017 competition came accompanied with cheering crowds, big screens and a spectacular atmosphere. One image especially captured the public imagination in Kosovo — a medal podium filled by two Kosovars, Majlinda atop with gold, Distria clutching bronze.

The gym partners were reunited on the podium, and it won’t be their final meeting at an international event. They will be opponents in every senior competition in the foreseeable future.

The two have already met in an all Kosovar final at the 2016 Budapest Grand Prix. After a 4 minute bout, Distria came out with the silver medal. It was one of the few finals in the history of the competition without a coach sitting in the corner of either fighter, though he did advise both beforehand.

“I do not want my fighters to get hurt and I will do everything to avoid that,” Toni said after the fight. “That was the only advice I gave to them. It was a nice fight.”

Discussing the competing members of his club, Toni insists that he does not favor anybody. “I work with hard workers who are ready to sacrifice everyday life for the judo experience,” he explains. “Majlinda has motivated not only her team mates but all Albanians to work hard and show what they’ve got. Now they will be friends and compete. But, in judo, we are all friends, worldwide. It is a clean sport with a concentration on education and respect.”

Distria knows surpassing her illustrious teammate will be a challenge, but it is one she relishes. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Distria manages to be magnanimous about the defeat, but without hiding her ambition. “It is sport, and you want to get to the top, but there are three places on the podium,” she explains. “I am very lucky to have Majlinda as a team mate. I am one of the few people in the world that gets to train with a European, World and Olympic champion every day. I have my biggest competitor at home.”

In most international competitions, two fighters from the same category and country are permitted. After that, it is down to the draw to select if and when Distria and Majlinda will meet again.

As Distria is very aware, this is true for every competition except the Olympic Games, which in 2020 is to be held in Japan, the land of Judo. There can be only one Kosovar representative in the women’s under 52 kg competition in Tokyo. To win an Olympic medal, the jewel in the crown of sporting achievements, Distria has to gather more points than her compatriot, and world and Olympic champion, Majlinda Kelmendi.

The medal factory

Alongside Distria and Majlinda, six other judokas trained at the Ippon club in Peja have won medals in IJF tournaments. By March 2017, the team had won a staggering total of 124 medals, of which 56 were gold. The club’s collection includes medals from World and European Championships at both youth and senior levels, and of course, Majlinda’s Olympic gold.

Training partners Majlinda and Distria account for 55 and 25 medals respectively, whilst brother and sister Akil and Nora Gjakova have contributed a further 35, with 26 won by Nora and nine by Akil.

The Judo Cup in Dubrovnik has particularly proved a happy hunting ground for the Ippon club, with Epirot Krasniqi, Korab Morina and Leutrime Krasniqi all picking up medals there over the years. Fjolla Kelmendi also recently tasted success in Croatia, picking up a bronze medal at the Zagreb Grand Prix — an IJF World Tour event — in September 2016.

“Judo is fair,” Distria states simply. “You fight your way up. You gather points, and then you qualify or you do not. I have an advantage over every other fighter in the world who wants  to challenge the holder of the highest titles in under 52 kg — I fight her every day.”

Mustafa Cuki Veseli, a judo coach from Prishtina, believes Distria is a serious competitor for any judoka in the world. “What I see in Distria is that she can use a huge variety of techniques when she fights,” Veseli explains. “It is special with her. She is showing world class judo and she will bring world class results home.”

No matter who goes to Japan, Kosovo is turning into a judo base for the Balkans and Peja’s Ippon club is becoming known across the globe — the school that surprised the world, and drew attention to the young people of this small country.

Judo can not compete with football or basketball in terms of popularity, but it is still a sport that is on the rise globally. The current president of the IJF, Marius Vizer, is determined to make judo grow as a spectator sport, and the federation has recently changed the rules of refereeing to make them both simpler and more understandable for the layman. Every major competition is now broadcast live on the internet, and some TV channels, including Eurosport, are also buying broadcast rights.

One day, when people get bored of Messi and Ronaldo, who knows, maybe they will start watching a competition that favors men and women equally, and Kosovo will become the new Brazil!

The advancement of judo will surely bring benefits, including potential sponsorship deals, to Kosovo’s young judokas. Maybe one day, the team from Peja will earn a living worth the sweat they put into achieving the world-beating goals they have realized.

Until then, Distria, Majlinda and the rest of Peja’s Ippon club turn their attention to the European Championships in Warsaw in April, with the whole team hungry for more medals.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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