Belgian’s super talent Gabriella Willems took a silver medal at the Grand Slam in Düsseldorf. She was in good shape and eager to qualify for the Olympic Games in these decisive months. The coronavirus hurts all of us and Willems is now stuck like so many without randori training. Willems is limited to train alternatively with alternative training’partners’. JudoInside partner Oon Yeoh of JudoCrazy and JudoInside spoke to the lady from Liege.
JIC: Interesting that two top athletes are from Liège, it’s close to where most Belgian major events are held. What is your relation to Charline van Snick?
GW: I know Charline for a very long time because I live at five minutes from her parents. I really appreciate her as we even went on holidays together. I can get inspired of her mentality and sometimes I ask her about ne-waza.
JIC: What are you doing these days now that the judo clubs are closed?
GW: Over here, athletes who were headed for the Olympics have access to the facilities to do self-training like weight training, circuits and jogging. No judo but we are allowed to train with dummies.
JIC: 2018 World Junior Champion Christian Parlati is your friend. He is stuck in Italy where normally you could see each-other at events or visit each-other. How do you cope with this situation?
GW: We are used to deal with distance but this time it is extreme. We call for hours and we try to stay positive. Christian’s situation is harder than mine because he can't train anywhere else than home.
JIC: Are you feeling anxious or frustrated about being locked-down?
GW: Not really because I love to be at home. I get to spend time with my family, call my boyfriend and chat with him, play with the cat, do some cooking, catch up on some reading and watch some movies. And of course, I train a lot. I’m lucky to live in the countryside where the weather is good.
JIC: Do you feel any withdrawal symptoms from not being able to do any judo though?
GW: Yes, of course. I’ve even asked my dad to put on a judogi!
JIC: In Belgium do you have a lot of suitable training partners?
GW: There are not that many suitable randori partners, so we don’t do that much randori. We focus on techniques and drills. For quality randori, we go abroad for training camps.
JIC: You came very close to winning your first IJF World Tour title in Dusseldorf, taking the fight to double World Champion Chizuru Arai of Japan into Golden Score. In the heat of the battle did you momentarily forget about the transition rule which allowed Arai to score from the ground?
GW: At that very moment I thought we were already in newaza because both our knees were on the ground but she stood up and was then able to throw me.
JIC: What do you think of this transition rule which allows players to throw their opponents as they transition from groundwork to standing?
GW: I like the idea of transitions, especially from standing to groundwork but the new rule that allows transitions from the ground to standing is not very suitable for me. I’m just more used to transition from standing to groundwork. I’ve trained a lot for that.
JIC: On the way to the final you had to face some pretty tough opposition including three players who were past winners of IJF events. Does your good performance in Dusseldorf give you confidence going forward?
GW: I’m happy with the results because last year was a difficult one for me. I didn’t get the results I wanted and suffered some injuries as well. It caused me to question myself a lot. So, getting the silver in Dusseldorf is a good shot of confidence. But I feel there's still a lot of room for improvement.
JIC: You look very cool on the mat, not with too much emotion. How is that after you lose a contest like that final in Düsseldorf?
GW: I've been told a lot to look phlegmatic but it's just a mask. It must be in my education... even after winning I usually stay quite reserved on the mat.
JIC: Based on the Olympic rankings you have qualified already. But now, the Games have been postponed. How do you feel about that?
GW: So close yet so far, is how I feel about it. But I try not to dwell on this and am focusing on the positive side of things. I’m still young and with an additional year of training, I'll emerge stronger and more experienced for the Olympics.
JIC: How old were you when you started judo? And when did you decide you wanted to become a serious international competitor?
GW: I started judo at six years old. I didn’t really have any big aspirations — I just went with the flow all the way. It was only last year that I decided to become a professional athlete.
JIC: What motivated you to do so?
GW: I want to be the best version of myself, to see how far I can go in international competitions.
JIC: You mentioned recently that you were always quite shy, but that has now changed. Is your modest attitude also related to your behavior on the mat?
GW: Yes, I want to be a good and respectful person in life but in competition I need to see it differently and to think that the best way to do it is to show my opponent "aggressivity" in the fight. I got help to work on how to inflate my ego during competition and disconnect the person I am on the mat and outside the tatami.
JIC: Are you a student as well or full-time doing judo?
GW: I’ve stopped my studies to dedicate myself to judo. I’m grateful to have the sponsorship to do what I love.
JIC: Are you getting confident in speaking to media on TV. Do you think you have to learn how to deal with that as a young judoka?
GW: It is not a priority but somehow the more confident I feel in speaking during interview the more I am on the mat.
JIC: In your weight category Ulla Werbrouck was a real queen in the nineties and zeros, do you know her personally?
GW: I don't know Ulla Werbrouck personally. Some people compared me to her that's why I know who she is but honestly I wasn’t raised with those champions. I started to get interest only a few years ago about our rich Belgian Judo culture.
JIC: You are one of the successful women from the Walloon side of Belgium. How do you see the future of Belgian judo?
GW: Belgium won Olympic medals with Charline van Snick in 2012, Dirk van Tichelt in 2016. This time we have real medal chances again for the next Olympic Games. We have a bright future with Matthias Casse, Jorre Verstraeten and Abdul Malik Umayev and many others. Toma Nikiforov was injured but he will be back soon. There are amazing talents that can follow up immediately. We have super talents in all age categories. It is not just the women of Walloon, I don't see it that way. We are booking serious progress and I am proud to be part of that. I need to learn how to play with all my cards, I think it is what experience is all about to reach the ultimate top in judo.
JIC: Any words for other judo players who are also stuck in a lock-down?
GW: This is a sad situation but we can use this time to think about what really matters to us and hopefully, learn something from it. Take care of yourself and others around you.
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The IOC postponed the Olympic Games until 23 July 2021, the U70kg event will take place at 28 July 2021.