Yeldos Smetov is the second and last World Champion of Kazakhstan so far. In 2015 he won the world title in an all Kazakh final. Smetov took bronze last year at the worlds and still in the race for the Olympic gold medal, in fact he is determined to grab it and quit his judo career at his highlight. JudoCrazy’s Oon Yeoh asked Smetov about his ambition, his rivals and pride.
JIC: How’s the Covid-19 situation in your country?
YS: We have a lock-down like in many parts of the world. We all stay at home, spending time with our families. As for training, we just do it at home. It’s not the same as like in judo training, though.
JIC: Can you tell us about how you got started in judo?
YS: I started judo thanks to my brothers. When I was five years old, we moved from the village to the city. My parents would spend their days at work, so my brothers and I were left to our own devices. Near our house was a sports school that offered many different types of combat classes: boxing, karate, taekwondo and judo. My brothers chose judo, I don’t know why. I was very young then and knew nothing about judo, so I just followed them. I really liked what I saw. Athletes in white kimonos fighting, doing somersaults... I thought it was beautiful.
JIC: What inspired or motivated you to want to become a champion?
YS: A few years after I started judo, I began to watch our judokas fight in the World Championships and the Olympic Games. I was impressed and inspired by the heroics of Askhat Zhitkeev, the first Olympic medalist from Kazakhstan and Askhat Shakharov, the first World Championship medalist from our country. Seeing their success made me also want to take part in big competitions, to defend the honor of my country, and to be able to give interviews as a champion. Judo became my world.
JIC: Are you a full-time athlete or do you hold other jobs?
YS: I dedicate myself only to sports. I’m not doing other jobs. The government fully sponsors all top athletes.
JIC: Your judo is very dynamic. Can you tell us about your judo development?
YS: My first coach Ahmet Zhumagul taught me the basics and laid the foundation for my judo. My current coach Galymzhan Zhylgeldiev taught me the value of work hard, and we work together to develop my judo. I think that success in sports comes from hard work. Maybe some talent is also necessary but I believe hard work is the most important thing.
JIC: Kazakhstan has its own traditional wrestling called Kures and both Sambo and Greco-Roman wrestling are popular too. Did you do those other forms of wrestling?
YS: No, I only did judo. I am only interested in judo.
JIC: In Kazakhstan, do the top players come from different clubs or do they all train at a national training center?
YS: In Kazakhstan there is no such thing a judo club like you have in many other countries. There are sport schools and training centers in different regions. The national team trains together at various training camps. I come from a place called Taraz, in the south, near the border with Kyrgyzstan, but about 10 months out of a year, I would be at various training camps and competitions.
JIC: Gusman Kyrgyzbayev is also a top player from Kazakhstan. He is your domestic rival. Is he also your friend?
YS: On the competition tatami, he is my rival but as members of the national team, we train together, we do randori together, we prepare for competitions together. We are not only friends, we are brothers. Although we don’t have the same parents, we are like family.
JIC: You’ve been Asian Games Champion, World Champion and Olympic silver medalist. How important is it to you that you get an Olympic gold?
YS: An Olympic gold is the dream of every athlete. The Olympics are the pinnacle of all competitions. So far, in wrestling sports, Kazakhstan has only one Olympic gold medal, won by Zhaksylyk Ushkempirov in Greco-Roman Wrestling at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But this was during the Soviet era. I want to become the first wrestling athlete from Kazakhstan to win an Olympic gold medal. I very upset that we still do not have a gold. Questions like: “Do we really have no worthy athletes?” and “Can we not achieve this?” bother me a lot. Therefore, an Olympics gold is very important for me. Getting a gold in other competitions is not that important to me anymore. I want to defend the honor of my country. I want to see my country’s flag raised, I want to sing our anthem at the Olympics. I want to prove to everyone that we have fighters who know how to win and that we are also worthy.
JIC: You’re 27 now. How many more Olympics do you see yourself going for?
YS: Actually, I wanted to finish my career after the 2016 Rio Olympics but as it turned out, I only managed to get a silver medal. For me, only gold is acceptable. I had vowed that without an Olympic gold medal, I would not end my competition career. I do not know when this will happen. If I need to keep fighting until I’m 40 years old, I will do it. Without an Olympic gold, I will not leave the competition arena.
JIC: Do you watch videos to study your opponents?
YS: I don’t have to do so because I’ve already fought my strongest opponents, so I am familiar with their style. Players don't usually change their styles, so there's no need for me to watch videos. I’d rather spend my time improving my own judo.
JIC: If you had to fight either Naohisa Takato or Ryuju Nagayama in the Olympics, who would you rather face?
YS: I’ll happily take either one. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m ready to fight anyone who stands in the way of the Olympic gold medal.
JIC: If you achieve your dream of getting the Olympic gold, what then? Have you thought about what you want to do after your competition career is over?
YS: There’s a saying that if you chase two hares, you will catch neither one. Right now, my focus is only on the Olympics. I’ll have plenty of time to think about what to do next, after I have achieved my goal.
Translation by Aigerim Toksanbek.
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