February 24, 2016: Cuba and its old cars, miraculously maintained since the fifties. Cuba and its faces, marked by decades of turbulent history. Cuba and its festive and colourful atmosphere which contrasts with the obvious difficulty of life in this Caribbean gem. Nobody can remain indifferent to all this. A few weeks ago, after the Havana Grand Prix, the IJF TV program #JudoForTheWorld, met young judoka whose dream is to one day become Olympic champion. We also met with the smiling Idalys Ortiz who represents her country at the highest level.
THE MAGIC OF HAJIME
Some will say that Hain has no luck. But it is certainly not his opinion. Born blind and partially deaf, he inherited his father’s cataract but also his good humour. Aged 13, the young boy, who grew up with his parents and sisters, is full of life and energy, and if his family lives frugally, in a large complex of old buildings, nobody complains. To compensate for his visual and hearing impairment, Hain touches everything, feels everything. He is curious and loves to listen to the radio. He reads a lot. Strongly supported by his family, he goes through life with joy.
What characterises Hain above all is his sense of humour. He laughs a lot and is always telling and inventing new stories. His impairment is obviously not always easy to deal with for him and his entourage, but as he likes to say: “I do not see my situation as a problem. I’m not unlucky, I am happy in this life and especially through judo. I do not want people looking at me like a different child. My dream is to become a Paralympic champion and I want to represent Cuba at the international level and make my parents happy. Judo brings me a lot. I feel stronger and I know I could defend myself if I had a problem.”
This sport has indeed revolutionised Hain’s life. His teacher, Yagnelis Mestre (bronze medallist at the 2007 Pan American Games) who participated in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and who now dedicates her life to the education of young disabled people through judo, said: “Hain just enjoys practicing judo. Each day he has to go to judo is a special day for him. You can see how happy he is to be on the mat. It’s amazing to see the positive energy of this child. He had not so many friends before, but thanks to judo he is now recognised and loved for who he is: an engaging and motivated child, always smiling.”
Hain’s father, a musician who is also visually impaired, said: “Hain has the same disability as me. It’s not easy for me to know that I transmitted this to my son, but I must say he makes us happy. It’s amazing to see what judo brings him. Besides reading, Hain lives for judo. He has a very positive attitude. He is filled with joy and love. But what is also important is that judo gives him assurance and confidence.“
On the tatami, Hain is the child with the most severe disability. But that does not prevent him to lead the judo session under the supervision of his teacher. Magically, after the very first ‘HAJIME’, everything seems to find its place. Yagnelis Mestre said: “Everyone loves Hain. He is really good at judo. It’s a pure joy to work with him.”
PLEASE BRING YOUR CHILDREN TO JUDO
Daniel Oña lives in the outlying district of San Miguel surrounded by his family. If primal, all these people seem to swim in bliss, things are a little more complicated than it looks like because Daniel is actually an adopted child. He never knew his parents. His mother left him at the age of two months in front of the house, asking the hostess, Cira Alfonso Arostica, to take care of him for a few days; thirteen years later, Daniel is still here and considers Cira as his real mother. It must be said that she has done everything possible to give him a good education. But when she remembers the boy’s story, the tears come rolling down the cheeks of the ‘Madonna’ dressed all in white.
She explains: “When he was a baby, Daniel was very sick all the time, fragile and closed in on himself. But suddenly, at the age of six, he started judo and he has transformed. He was no longer ill and began to socialise with more and more people. He became a very respectful child, with nice values. Daniel tried several sports, but judo is the sport; the one that has retained all his attention. At first I had to take him to the training, but now he goes alone.”
After the tears, the smiles come quickly to brighten Cira’s cheeks when she remembers the first competition in which Daniel participated: “He came back home with a bronze medal around his neck. I was so proud of him. But he was not happy and he told me that silver would interest him. Since then, he has never missed a final. Daniel is passionate about judo and his commitment is total.”
The boy explains: “When I am on the mat, I want to win and I always want to fight against the judoka how are stronger than me because this is how I progress. My biggest rival is my best friend. We motivate each other. My dream is to become Olympic and World Champion. My judo model is Asley Gonzalez, but I also love Idalys (Ortiz) because she was able to make her dream come true. Judo is my sport.”
What is striking when one meets Daniel is his incredible motivation. From his thirteen years, he knows what he wants and he knows what effort it requires. He wants to know everything about judo techniques and said in all modesty, he wants to be the strongest. When he wears his judogi, he is finally himself and all his energy is focused on his goals. Thanks to judo and his first results at the Cuban level, Daniel has become well known in the community in which he grew up.
His step mom does not have enough words to explain how judo has changed the lives of ‘her’ Daniel: “I appeal to moms worldwide. Please, bring your kids to judo. In life, you have to fight and you have to get back up all the time. In judo, your children will learn this. It makes them better people. Daniel likes to help others. He regularly helps the elderly for instance. One of his friends had stopped judo, but he convinced him to come back. His life has a purpose. This makes me so happy and makes us all very happy.”
A MODEL OF A CHAMPION
If there is a Cuban champion who already achieved her Olympic dream it is Idalys Ortiz, gold medallist in London in 2012. When she is being asked why Cubans are so strong in judo, Idalys replies: “We are aware that we have limitations, but nonetheless we win medals at the highest level. Perhaps with the same means as other great judo nations, we would not get the same results. We are proud of our identity and we fight for it. Nothing is easy, we have to fight, but the victory is all the more beautiful. “
During her victory at the Havana Grand Prix, last January, the Olympic champion exploded with joy: “At the first edition of the Grand Prix, two years ago, I did not get a medal. The last four years have not always been easy for me. I could not train like I wanted for eleven months. This year I wanted to show that I was the strongest and I was still one of the favourites for the title this summer in Rio. I also wanted the gold medal for my coach, Ronaldo Veitia, who recently retired. Before the competition, he said he knew I could win and if that was the case, then I might dedicate this medal to him. It put a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but at the end of the day, I was so happy for my family and for my coach.
For twelve years I have been getting ready for the Olympics. I would like to stop after Rio to build a family with my partner and to have children. If after this, I’m able to get back to my best level, I’ll see and maybe I’ll come back, but I think that’s enough… But I said the same after London…“
Reflecting on her career and her impressive prize list, the smiling champion said: “When I started winning medals at major tournaments, I asked whether I could make it to the Olympics as well.
Thus before the Beijing Olympics, I went to my coaches and just asked them if it was possible to get on the podium. Their answer was very simple: you go onto the mat and you to do what you know. There were three judoka against who I had never won: Elena Ivashchenko (RUS), Megumi Tachimoto (JPN) and Tong Wen (CHN). When I reached the semi-finals against the Chinese, I thought I had already fulfilled my ability, but I managed to get into the final. For the last fight, Sugimoto Mika and I have not managed to tie us in regular time, so I told to myself that if I had come all this way, I could not stop and be satisfied with the silver medal. We had to go to the flag decision and I would have been disappointed to see two only flags. I wanted the three flags for me because the victory would not have been complete. When I saw the unanimous referee decision, I could really relax: I was Olympic champion. A dream come true.“
The only Olympic medallist of the small city of Candelaria, Idalys Ortiz is now a star in her hometown. But alike Hain and Daniel, all was not always easy. Her parents live 5km walking distance from the city centre where the small dojo is located. Idalys was walking sometimes twice a day to go to training. On her way, she used to meet friends she was going with to judo: “On the way, we used to repeat the movements that we had learned and that we had seen in movies. When we would finally arrive at the dojo, we would already be tired, but as soon as we would set foot on the mat, we would again be full of energy. Actually, I discovered judo by chance. I was bigger and beefier than everyone, but I did not do sports. It is the coach who came to my mum to tell her about judo and that it would be good that at least I would try. From day one, I did not like it but I loved it. “
If her parents are divorced, the whole family still lives under the same roof and in all her simplicity, Idalys comes back here as often as her schedule permits, to tighten her parents in her arms: “My family is really important to me. They have always supported me. My companion also helps me a lot. He takes care of the house because I cannot do it because of my training program. I do not need to think about the housework (laughs).
“I am aware that my career is a model of emancipation for all Cuban and Cuban women. I come from this place I love, even if it is very humble. It’s amazing, every time I come back here, I can feel the gratitude of all people. I started to study in school like any child of my age, but when I turned 13-14 years old, I had to leave and go far from here to train. It was hard. I went to Pinar Del Rio, though Havana was closer. I had to make many sacrifices, but I do not regret anything, quite the contrary. I realise what my results have brought to Candelaria. I know that when I was champion in
London, it was the permanent carnival in the streets.”
There is a link between all these stories: the dream, the desire to excel, the need to fight beyond the difficulties of life. After stopping in Japan, then in Cuba, Judo for the World cameras will step in Rio in the upcoming weeks. Stay tuned to discover new stories about incredible characters. —- Photos © thisishuxley.com & IJF Media by Nicolas Messner