From the slums to the stars
A child of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous favela, Rafaela Silva became her country’s first judo world champion in 2013 and completed her fairytale rise to greatness by winning Olympic gold in her home city three years later.
Judo as an escape route
Rafaela Silva was born on 24 April 1992 in Cidade de Deus, Rio’s most well-known favela and a place beset by poverty, violence and crime. “The children who lived near us in Cidade de Deus were very aggressive,” she explained. “Some of them would walk around with weapons in their hands, even though they were only 11 or 12. One of our cousins got caught up with a gang of drug traffickers, which was the kind of future that lay in store for me. Then came the 2004 Olympic Games.”
At the age of five, Silva and her sister Raquel enrolled at the Institut Reaçao, an NGO set up by Brazilian judoka Flávio Conto, who won Olympic bronze in the 81kg category at Athens 2004. The charity teaches judo and its values to disadvantaged children, gives them an education, and shows them that success is within their grasp if they work for it. It would play a fundamental role in turning Rafaela’s life around. “I held the medal he [Flávio] brought back from Greece in my hands,” she explained. “I think that’s when it struck me, when I realised that I too could go home and give all that joy to my family.”
A world junior champion
“Before I or my sister got into judo. We were pretty rebellious,” admits Raquel. “We weren’t interested in going to school, and sport radically changed our lives. It was transformational, like water to wine. Flávio looked after us like we were his children.” After honing her exceptional technical and physical abilities, Rafaela announced herself on the international stage, claiming the world 57kg junior title in Bangkok (THA) in 2008. Victorious at several other international junior events, she stepped up successfully to senior level, winning silver at the 2011 IJF World Championships in Paris.
A maiden world title for Brazil
For her Olympic debut at London 2012, Silva faced Hungary’s Hedwig Harakas in the second round. Despite dominating the bout from start to finish, the Brazilian was disqualified for an illegal hold. To make matters worse, on her return to Brazil she was the victim of racist abuse online and fell into a state of depression, becoming so despondent that she seriously considered giving up judo altogether. Urged on by countless messages of support, she returned to training a few months later, more determined than ever to succeed. A gold medallist at the 2013 Pan American Games in San José (PUR), she then made history at the World Championships in her home town of Rio a few months later, beating the USA’s Marti Mallory by ippon in the final to become the first female Brazilian to win a world judo title.
Gold on home soil
In the years that followed, Silva maintained her status one of the world’s leading judokas and went into her home Olympics in Rio in 2016 determined to succeed. After securing a golden-score win over Romania’s Corina Căprioriu in the semi-finals, the home favourite took on world No1 Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia in the final. Urged on by the most vociferous of crowds, Silva sent her fans into raptures one minute into the bout, throwing her opponent to the mat for waza-ari and taking a lead she would hold to the end of the fight.
As the first of the host country’s seven gold medallists at Rio 2016, Silva became a national idol. “For someone like me, who comes from the favelas and took up judo at the age of five for a laugh, to go on and become Olympic champion is just amazing,” she said. “If the children of Brazil have a dream, they have to believe they can make it come true. I dedicate this medal to the Brazilian people. The supporters really gave me momentum and built up the pressure on my opponents. The stadium was shaking and everybody was screaming and cheering me all the way through.”
The passionate Silva has been involved with the Institut Reaçao for some time now, putting something back into the charity that set her on the right track, and showing disadvantaged youngsters exactly what they can achieve. “We try to teach them that they can dream bigger than they ever thought,” said Canto. “They can go to school or to university and they can become superheroes. That’s what we try and do every day.” And at Rio 2016, Silva showed them that even the biggest dreams can come true.