Brazil’s golden girl looks back in wonder at the past 12 months
“Everything has changed” in the past year, according to Rafaela Silva. It was 12 months ago to the day that the hometown girl, born and raised in Cidade de Deus, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most infamous favelas, lit up the Olympic Games Rio 2016 by winning Brazil’s first gold medal.
Despite having already been a world champion and a major figure in the world of judo, nothing could have prepared 25 year-old Rafaela Silva for what followed her golden triumph at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“Wherever I go people recognise me, people stop in the middle of the street to speak with me, to greet and praise me, they ask to take a photo, a selfie,” Silva said with a mixture of amusement and resignation.
She is certainly not complaining, but the attention has made her day-to-day life a “little more agitated”.
First up, Silva took a long, long holiday. The high of Monday 8 August 2016 understandably lasted well into the Brazilian spring and summer. The media attention was incessant, both from the proud national press and the hungry international mob, delighted to have a found a true, modern fairy tale.
I managed to win an Olympic gold medal, it shows that others can reach the Olympic GamesRafaela Silva
On top of this, Silva wanted, needed and deserved time to celebrate with friends and family.
“I only returned to training in February 2017,” she said. “It was very difficult indeed, I was out of shape and I had gained weight. I tired very quickly during training sessions and I was feeling a lot of muscle pain. I even considered giving up.”
At this point Silva laughs, as if to confirm that even had she wanted to, stopping was not an option for Brazil’s golden girl. Thankfully, her strong team, consisting of a nutritionist, physical trainer and coach, got her back on track. The lure of the 2017 International Judo Federation (IJF) World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, provided the impetus.
“I am now training six hours every day,” she added. “The long-term goal is to arrive at the World Championships (in late August) in peak physical condition.”
Six months in and she is not doing too badly, ranked number two in the world for her -57kg category. Only Mongolia’s Sumiya Dorjsuren, the number one seed Silva defeated in that life-changing final in Rio’s Carioca Arena 12 months ago, stands ahead of her.
This progress, from lying on Copacabana Beach to once again challenging the very best in the world, has been achieved in pretty tumultuous circumstances. Silva is still firmly attached to the Instituto Reacao, the judo centre she was sent to as a youngster by her parents in an attempt to keep her off the crime-ridden streets of Cidade de Deus, but it has endured a difficult six months. The university in which the Instituto was formerly housed was forced to close earlier this year due to a lack of funds.
“Now we are at another university and we are rebuilding the space, it’s still a little messy and disorganised, but we are creating a better space,” Silva explained. “By the end of this calendar year it should be ready properly.”
The only Brazilian to ever win world and Olympic golds in judo, Silva is delighted to report that her example is having a clear, definitive impact on her fellow Rio residents.
“The number of people interested in judo has increased considerably, many people are asking for a transfer to the Reacao, to train with us,” she said. “I managed to win an Olympic gold medal, it shows that others can reach the Olympic Games, at least we can now see it in this way, that everyone has the same structure and the same chances.”
In Cidade de Deus, the favela made famous by director Fernando Meirelles’ Oscar-nominated film of the same name and in which half of Silva’s family still live, day-to-day life has also received a boost since the Olympic Games.
“Before there was a lot of confusion, people walking in the streets with guns, it was very sad to see and we tried not to get too involved, but we have since seen that this kind of thing has diminished greatly,” Silva said.
There has been one other area of change in Silva’s life, a transformation that perhaps meant more to outsiders than to her. In the immediate aftermath of her gold-medal-winning exploits, Silva came out publicly as gay.
After many years living happily and openly to her friends and family in a long-term relationship, it “didn’t make a great deal of difference” to Silva. But as a further example to her young compatriots, it was surely a deeply affirming and positive step.
Given everything that has come her way in the past year, not to mention all that she has projected outwards, it is heart-warming and perhaps unsurprising to hear Silva’s long-term objective.
“My ultimate goal is to win another gold medal at Tokyo 2020,” she said. “I want to experience that feeling at the top of the podium once again.”
Who can blame her?