The lure of judo is odd as it is an incredibly painful sport but South African Judoka Michaela Whitebooi has found gold medal success, and is looking forward to the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
By Nick Said
MICHAELA WHITEBOOI’S GOLD MEDAL AT the 2022 Commonwealth Games was a reward for years of pain and toil on the judo mat, but she is already thinking of her next goal at the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
Whitebooi won gold in the 48-kilogram category, but despite
her diminutive size, is a born fighter who had to make up for the disappointment of a first round exit at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
Raised in Booysen Park in Gqeberha, South Africa, she started judo at the age of 10 after a friend invited her to training, and won a place at the TuksSport High School in Pretoria, the country’s capital.
“I was 14 years old and my mom traveled with me, but then had to leave a few days before the school opened,” Whitebooi tells FORBES AFRICA from her training base in Budapest.
“That was devastating for me, I was crying the whole time. I honestly can’t tell you how I survived, though the next year two or three of my friends came, including one boy from my judo club [in Gqeberha].
“So that made it easier, I had people that were familiar to me and I could hang around them. The first year I was so alone.”
Whitebooi says the lure of judo is odd as it is an incredibly painful sport.
“I don’t know what it really is. It is really painful falling and you know when you go to training you are going to feel that pain. But the judo mat also makes you feel you are in a happy place.”
She is trained by Bulgarian Nikola Filipov, who has helped to shape her career, even if first impressions were not promising.
“He was my coach at the TuksSport High School, so I have been with him since 2010,” she explains. “I met him the first day there. It was quite scary, he is a rough guy with a hard face. And he was looking at me like, ‘are you really a judo player, you are so tiny?’
“When he was told that I was there at the school for judo, he started laughing at me! But from that time we grew a strong relationship. It’s a powerful team.”
Whitebooi found gold medal success at the All-Africa Games, but had a stroke of bad luck when she was drawn against the reigning Olympic champion Paula Pareto in the first round in Tokyo and lost.
“I had Covid-19 in March 2021 and didn’t think I would go to the Olympics because I missed out on qualifying competitions. I was not scared to fight her and I learned a lot in those few minutes I was on the mat.”
Whitebooi took that experience into the Commonwealth Games and beat Shushila Likmabam in the final.
“I was very confident about the Commonwealth Games and thought Ihadagoodchancetobeonthe podium. I pushed myself as much as I could, there was a big shift in my mind and I really believed in myself.”
She says Paris 2024 will likely be her last major competition and, having thought about quitting after Tokyo, is putting all her efforts into going out on a high.
“I’ve put a lot of years into judo and after Tokyo I had to really think about whether I wanted to come back for another four years, rather than a life I could have outside [the sport] and make more money and build a family,” she says.
“Paris 2024 will probably be where I end my competitive judo. I will always want to give back to the sport and help the younger generation. But there is also a point where your body tells you that you must give up because I’m crying every single day!”
As for life after the sport, she is well set and says she is “very much looking forward” to building a career.
“Since a young age I was very invested in my schoolwork. I made sure my grades were good. My first degree was financial science and then I did my honours in internal auditing. I then did a post- graduate [degree] in entrepreneurship. I can’t wait to see what is possible for me out there.”