Kosovar judoka Majlinda Kelmendi has swept all before her in the women’s 52kg category in recent years, winning two world titles and three European crowns since 2013. The undisputed world No1, she is now aiming to add Olympic gold to her impressive record.A bronze medallist in the women’s 52kg class at the Olympic Games London 2012, France’s Priscilla Gneto is in no doubt as to the attributes of Kosovo’s Majlinda Kelmendi. “This girl is a machine,” said Gneto after losing out to the world No1 in the final of the 2016 European Championships in Kazan (RUS) at the end of April. “When you’ve got her in your hands you can feel how physical she is. But then, at the end of the day, she’s only got two arms and two legs like the rest of us. What makes the difference is her mental strength and her desire.”
Kelmendi, whose chief attributes are her precision, power and speed of execution, not least when throwing a devastating uchi-mata, has been riding high on the international scene since her teenage years, claiming back-to-back European junior titles in 2009 and 2010, a year in which she also won the world junior title.
Recalling how she took up the sport, Kelmendi said: “When I was eight years old, my sister and my friends started to do judo. My sister was telling me all the time: ‘Come on! Try it! It’s really good. It’s really fun. Then after two weeks we went to a competition in Sarajevo. This was the moment when I really loved judo because I saw that a lot of girls do this sport. It was really nice.”
Coached in her formative years by former elite judoka Driton Kuka, Kelmendi debuted on the senior circuit in 2011 and took her Olympic bow in London the following year, representing Albania in a competition in which she went out in the second round. Since 2013, however, the Peja-born Kelmendi has not tasted defeat. Representing Kosovo for the very first time at that year’s world championships in Rio de Janeiro, she won her country’s first ever world title, becoming the Balkan nation’s biggest sports star overnight. A year later she retained her world crown in Chelyabinsk (RUS) and also won the European title in Montpellier (FRA), achievements that led to her being named Judoka of the Year.Growing up through judo you learn a lot of things. It’s the kind of sport that teaches you to have respect for everything.Majlinda Kelmendi Kosovo
Hard work pays off
A knee injury wrecked Kelmendi’s 2015 campaign, with a back injury then forcing her to pull out of the world championships in Astana (KAZ) that August. She was back in action two months later, however, winning the prestigious Grand Slam Paris.
Kelmendi kicked off 2016 in fine style, collecting her third European title and then winning the Grand Slam Paris, also for the third time. Those triumphs have boosted her bid for gold at Rio 2016, where she will be representing Kosovo, which the IOC recognised as the 205th National Olympic Committee at its 127th Session in Monaco in December 2014.
Discussing her love for her sport and her country, for whom she will be carrying the flag at the Opening Ceremony in Rio, Kelmendi said: “Growing up through judo you learn a lot of things. It’s the kind of sport that teaches you to have respect for everything.”
I have nothing special. I just work hard and I just have to make my dreams come true, and it doesn’t make me different to other girls in Peja. Everybody who works hard can be successful.Majlinda Kelmendi Kosovo
Now at the peak of her considerable physical, technical and mental powers, the 24-year-old will step out in Rio as the very firm favourite to win gold in her category and secure Kosovo its maiden Olympic title.
“Through all my career, my coach was telling me that everything you do in your life you do it for yourself,” she said. “No matter if I am world champion, if I am Olympic champion, I will always be the same girl from Peja. I have nothing special. I just work hard and I just have to make my dreams come true, and it doesn’t make me different to other girls in Peja. Everybody who works hard can be successful.”