Inside news
The judo day of my life – Ilse Heylen

The judo day of my life – Ilse Heylen

10 Jun 2020 09:05
Christian Fidler

With an Olympic bronze medal and a European title, Ilse Heylen belongs to the group of most successful Belgian judoka of all time. She competed at three Olympic Games, seven World Championships and countless international tournaments and marked more than 400 international contests in JudoInside’s database that she used to showcase her career.

Ilse Heylen is passionate about judo and you still see her around at many places as a talent coach. Ilse Heylen tops the judo rankings when you look at international medals.

With her experiences she can make young athletes better but once we ask Ilse the intriguing question.

“If you could live one day from your competitive judo life again, exactly as it happened, with no changes. Which day would you choose and why?”

Ilse Heylen had to think really hard, but came with an interesting question in a situation that everyone recognizes.

Ilse Heylen: Making a choice of one day in 20 years of judo at the highest level is perhaps the most difficult question I have ever been asked. The fact that I did not go for the obvious one, my Olympic medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, will be a surprise for a lot of people. Although that bronze medal was undoubtedly the biggest achievement of my career, I chose the 2011 Austrian World Cup in Oberwart.

Just after the 2008 Olympics, where I finished seventh, I had to have surgery on my shoulder due to rotator cuff problems. The recovery took me more than six months. The federation then threatened to take me out of the national team due to the injuries and to my age…  Olivier (Berghmans, my coach and husband) and I had to go all the way up to the Ministry of Sports. We got their support and were allowed to follow our own program. After my bronze medal at the 2010 Europeans, I had to undergo surgery again, this time the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of my knee was torn. Again a long period of working alone and feeling the stress…

Would I be able to compete on the highest level again? And would I be able to qualify for the London Olympics? My first competition after this recovery period was the Paris Grand Slam. I finished fifth but was not really pleased with my judo and the result. A week later I went to Oberwart in Austria.

I am superstitious

Going to Oberwart, I could not keep my brain from worrying. The trip Belgium – Austria seemed to take forever, Paris was still in my mind, my knee was in my mind, would I be able to get the necessary qualification points for the Olympic Games? But when we finally arrived, I got my focus back. It was a beautiful hotel, Olivier was doing the administration, I had a reassuring conversation with the late Claudia Heil, and I got room number 7. Yes, I am a little bit superstitious.

12th of February 2011: competition day! As almost always, I had an hesitant however successful first fight against Masa Smiljkovic (SRB). I controlled my second fight against Inna Cherniak (UKR) quite well and went on to meet Anna Kharitonova (RUS) in the semi-final. I knew this was going to be pretty tight. I managed to throw her with a nice driving ko-uchi-gari. I was really pleasantly surprised that I still had this timing and feeling. The final was waiting.

The final against Erika Miranda

My opponent in the final was Erika Miranda (BRA). I had won against her in Paris, just a week before. So I expected her to fight in a different, more aggressive way. But by the end of this day I was feeling really strong. I dominated the fight and won with a well-executed juji-gatame!

On the podium I both cried and smiled. It was my first podium since 10 months, and a long and lonely recovery with only Olivier and my physio standing by me. All those mixed feelings. It was a big thank you to all the people who did not stop believing in me and a big ‘I told you so’ to the people who did stop believing in me. I think a lot of athletes will recognize this.

Although this victory was not a victory in a major competition or championship, it allowed me to regain confidence in myself. Olivier and I proved to the world that our system worked and we went on to do so till 2016, at the highest level. 

To people reading this I would like to say:

Believe in your dreams and work hard to achieve them!

and also ‘try to surround yourself with competent, skilled people who really care for you!’.

I loved and still love this judo game. Nowadays Olivier and I pass on our experience in the Ilse Heylen Judo Academy. The love for judo remains the same, but now we try to pass it on to others.

More judo info than you can analyse 24/7! Share your results with your judo network. Become an insider!