All the people from Peja, Kosovo, would have no second thoughts if they were asked to identify Majlinda Kelmendi: the gold medal winner of the junior world championship of Paris, in 2009. The life and story of a girl who dreams of representing Kosovo in the 2012 Olympic games
After school and when there is not much to do at home, she takes a walk in the neighbourhood. Afternoons are usually peaceful in the residential area on the edge of Peja, Kosovo. Even though it is not training time, her feet instinctively lead her to the gym. It only takes her a few minutes to arrive at a building attached to private houses that, from the outside, doesn't seem like a gym.
On the inside, the silence deepens. A high ceiling, long wide mirrors on one of the side walls, and a ground covered in mats all form a training ground for combat sports.
Speechless for few minutes, her eyes are focused deep on this sight, but she sees more than the simple view of the gym. Hours of running and grappling go through her mind, then the sounds of theories on Judo techniques, then all of these flashes translate into even more sweating and training.
Majlinda Kelmendi is looking at the temple of her devotion; her own space where she has built lifetime success. “I have been coming here for about ten years,” says the 18-year-old Junior Judo World Champion.
She fell in love with the sport after a few training sessions and committed to it after her first competition with the club. As an 8-year-old at a competition in Sarajevo, she won the bronze medal in a category in which there were only two other contestants. “I felt very good on the podium and I wanted to live that moment again,” she says.
With more than a hundred podium placings, Majlinda went onto become Kosovo’s most crowned athlete in the sport. Her great desire to become someone in sports is the main reason behind her success.
A family of sport
There is still snow in front of the house. Majlinda’s nephew quickly makes snowballs and throws them at a tree and then at the windows of the house. From the inside, the snow catches Majlinda's attention and, for a moment, takes the glare out of her most precious décor in the room.
Two medals hang separately on the main wall: a gold medal from the European Championship in Yerevan (Armenia) and the gold medal from Paris (France) that launched her to judo’s world summit. The rest of the room looks more like a collection of medals, certificates, and cups than the room of an ordinary teenage girl. While she holds the gold medals with care, her mother Fikrete walks into the room unnoticed.
Now in her fifties, she was the first in the family to wear a judo kimono. Fikrete practiced karate for a few months in her youth, but that experience was cut short because her parents did not agree with her hobby.
“It is not the same for Majlinda,” says Fikrete standing near her youngest daughter. Together, she and her husband Ismet, a former professional footballer, have always encouraged their children to engage in hobbies. Their two elder daughters and their cousins also wore the kimono for limited periods.
“For Majlinda it turned out to be more than a hobby,” says proud Fikrete. “She has our full support because judo is what she wants to do.”
Majlinda's parents don't mind that their little girl trains for long hours in a gym dominated by men. Unlike Majlinda, other girls adhere to the social norms that still prevail in the town. In Peja, a town of about 100,000 inhabitants located in western Kosovo, social constraints are still alive in an environment where public opinion matters.
Even if parents want to keep the sport door open against all odds, school is still considered a must. “It is important for her to have a degree, since education stays with you forever,” Fikrete says, after admitting that she cries every time she sees her daughters win a competition. Her glazed eyes give away how much pride she has in her daughter.
Majlinda has so far managed to earn excellent marks at school. What drives her to success is the effort she puts into everything she does. Since sports come first in her life, she has to miss classes every now and then and later must spend extra hours studying at home to catch up.
“If it wasn’t for my two best friends to update me on the lectures, I don’t know how I would manage,” says the 18-year-old, who expects to earn her high school diploma in economics this year.
It is time for an afternoon walk in town. Mutual respect is evident in the neighbourhood. A well-educated Majlinda greets passers-by with a shy smile and a quiet ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ and in return gets greetings and smiles. A car technician down the road even stops her and takes a few minutes to ask 'how are things at the gym?', and 'when is the next medal coming home?'
And the greetings continue even beyond range of her house. Titles like ‘the Champion’, the ‘Famous Judo Girl’, and ‘Our Majlinda Kelmendi’ confirm that she is well-known, even worshipped, by children who wave at her.
Standing in the central square, a policeman approaches to ask about “things” – meaning working conditions and life at the club – in a friendly way. Majlinda always comes back from her walks with the smile of a teenager on her face.
She reacts calmly to the obvious fame she enjoys in the community. “My success did not happen in a day; it was built slowly. And there is nothing that would make me feel better than how I do now,” says Majlinda, who does not even call her family to give them news after winning a medal. “I take care of myself before, during, and after the fights, and I always expect for my loved ones to call me first”.
She does not go to bars, discos, or music nights where all her peers spend their spare time. To everyone’s surprise, Majlinda prefers to grab some fast food with her small circle of friends or visit cousins.
Her mobile phone rings. It is her coach. The conversation lasts several seconds with Majlinda giving brief answers, mostly ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The next meeting between the two will be at the gym.
At the ‘temple’
It is early evening and the lights in the “Ippon Judo Club” gym are on. The space's walls are filled with images of the champion in her kimono, which are displayed in the most prominent places. Photos of her best moments during crucial matches line the mirrors, as do photos from the two prestigious medal ceremonies when Majlinda won gold.
There can be no stronger motivation for several children starting their daily training. As the first groups enter, they immediately start to move around and simulate fights on all corners of the mats. Laughing and chit-chatting, more children make their way in. As the sound of small steps echoes around the gym, a tall figure makes his way in and, as soon as he deals with heating system, takes the coordinating position. Out of a strong body in a track-suit comes a voice calling “line-up!”
The respect that the coach enjoys in the club, and in the wider judo community, is incredible. Jeton ‘Tony’ Kuka won this status by being one of the leading judo youngsters in the former Yugoslavia during the '80’s and a judo trainer in the last decade. Politics, with the break-up of Yugoslavia, was the reason he retired when he was 19. It seems that the chance he missed as a professional sportsman is open to the new generations he supervises. He believes that more youngsters from the club will conquer the judo world scene in coming years.
About 30 children, mainly young, line up in seconds. Majlinda leads the warm-up. Focus and determination are evident in her face, as well as in her body language.
“Majlinda has the character of a fighter,” Tony says. “She is tireless in training, while her will to win in competitions is something to envy.”
In training she is partnered with Nora Gjakova, another youngster who just missed winning a medal in the World Championships for Juniors in Paris, where she placed seventh.
Ippon Judo Club seems to be becoming a women-dominated sports club. There are 20 girls training in the session. Boys are drawn away by other interests when they become young adults, and the coach sees the advantages that the girls have: they're more committed and serious youngsters. The hard-working generation has made this club a pace-setter in Kosovo - and made it a club which also has left a mark on the global map.
However, to compete means to participate in tournaments, cups, and championships across Europe all year long. For ten years, most of the travel and other necessary expenditures have been covered privately by the club, run jointly by Tony and his brother, Agron, who is also the head of the Kosovo Judo Federation.
There has also been institutional assistance for the club ever since major results in the international scene have started to become routine for Ippon Club. But an ‘ippon’ (in judo, an ‘ippon’ is an important throw ending with an opponent largely on his/her back) was scored when the brothers managed to bring the head of the International Judo Federation to visit this particular gym ...three times.
Encouraged by the work and professionalism demonstrated at the club, Marius L. Vizer decided in the summer of 2009 that the girls would participate in high-level competitions under the federations’ flag. Considering that the Kosovo Federation is not an international member, it was a great lift: at the European Championships in Yerevan, where Majlinda won gold, she had no other choice than to compete under the Albanian flag, a situation enabled by her double citizenship.
In October during the World Championships in Paris, Vizer prepared another surprise. After Majlinda became the world Number 1 in the 52 kilograms category after beating Japanese contestant Chiho Kagaya, Vizer allowed the Kosovo anthem to be played during the medal ceremony: it was the first time the anthem had ever been played at an international sports contest.
Targeting London 2012
Majlinda has a clear idea of what she has to do in order to continue her high-level performances: hard work. Since age 16, her days have started with a 6:00 AM training, followed by a session with her age group, and then joining the boys' training just to get the extra skills and strength she needs. Physical activities are wrapped up with Sunday walks in the hills surrounding the town of Peja. All these efforts combined put her onto the world pedestal for juniors.
But competing with opponents of all ages will not be a walk in the park. In order to get a spot as a serious contender in the next Olympic Games, coach Tony is studying a two-year plan to earn her a place among the favourites. “It is very important to make the top 8 judoka in the world before 2012, as she would avoid top contenders in the early stages of the Olympics,” says Tony, explaining that the road to London starts in May.
It is still yet to be seen, though, under which flag Majlinda will try to make her Olympic dream come true. Even after getting a golden medal in Yerevan, coach Tony refused to sign a contract binding her to represent Albania for life. Kuka himself was offered a position as a coach in Slovenia, but only if Majlinda would compete under Slovenia’s flag. Much more tempting were the invitations from Arab states which, translated into numbers, mean that Majlinda's earnings could match those of the world’s elite footballers.
But Tony insists on bringing the rewards and glory to Kosovo. He hopes that one day institutions will implement the needed legislation and give serious attention to successful sportsmen instead of selective funding or occasional monetary awards. “We have refused hefty offers,” Majlinda's coach Tony Kuka says. “We will change our decision only if we get fully ignored by our state, otherwise at the London Olympic Games we will hold the flag of Kosovo.”
One more day of training is over. Majlinda exhales deeply and goes ahead with her thoughts. “My dream is to represent all Albanians in the Olympic Games, regardless of the borders,” says Majlinda, well aware that hard work lies ahead of her. She has already fixed the most unforgettable moments in her mind. “I got so excited after knocking out my Japanese opponent, who is world Number 1, that I was jumping all over the place,” says Majlinda remembering Paris and how she even cried, something she usually does only after being defeated. “And the other greatest moment was hearing my (Kosovo) anthem in the ceremony. I was so happy.”
She sure is going to make many more Kosovars happy if she represents Kosovo at the London 2012 Olympics, and they will be even more proud if the anthem is played.
If Majlinda makes it to the podium, she promises to break her rule and pick up the phone to give her mother the news. But it will surely be too late. By then, her family and all of Kosovo will have found out, as all eyes will be on Majlinda waiting for that moment.