By Gili Cohen, pictured second from the right.
My name is Gili Cohen, I’m 26 years old and I’m a judoka. When I was four my dad first took me to a local judo club in my hometown Ra’anana, Israel, and since then I’ve been hooked. What started as an after-school activity became my biggest dream, and today I can’t imagine my life without it. Throughout my career I’ve competed all over the world, representing my country in European and World Championships, the International Judo Federation (IJF) tour and the Rio Olympic Games 2016. Even as I write these words I am grateful and proud of what I was able to achieve. Yet I’m also motivated to keep improving and succeeding, in the hope of realizing my biggest dream, an Olympic medal.
Every competition is another step in my journey. Whether I win or lose, finish my day on the podium or get knocked out in the first round, I try to look at the big picture, using the experience as an opportunity to grow, learn, improve and mature. Obviously it’s no easy task, especially if things aren’t going the way I want them to, but it’s worth the effort in the end. The lessons I’ve learned in sport accompany me in all aspects of my life, and I try to implement them outside the judo mat too.
In every training session and competition I’m reminded of the core values of sports, which to me are also core values in life. Teamwork, commitment, respect, leadership, waking up each morning trying to be a better athlete, daughter, friend, Jew, human being. That’s what leads me through life.
I’d like to share with you a special moment I recently had which highlighted to me the beauty of sport and its values.
In late October as part of the Israeli national judo team we travelled to Abu Dhabi to compete in a Grand Slam organized by the IJF. Much like in tennis, a Grand Slam is one of the most important competitions of the year, which earns its medalists valuable points in the world ranking list. The competition drew lot of media hype and publicity in Israel and worldwide because of the local organizer’s decision to disallow the Israeli delegation to fight under their country’s flag. We were forced to fight representing the IJF, no flag and no anthem.
I could write about how terrible it is when politics interfere in sport, about the problems we had with the visas and what it feels like to fight as a Jew in a Muslim country, but instead I’d like to tell you about Joana Ramos.
Ramos is a Portuguese judoka. The first time we fought each other in competition was in 2013 and since then we’ve shared a sporting rivalry with an equal number of victories and defeats.
The last time we met was in the bronze medal fight in the European Championships in April. The crucial fight was tough but I felt strong and confident. I even had the edge for most of it, but after no score in regular time, we went into golden score (a kind of sudden death in which the first to make a score wins the fight). After a total of almost seven minutes of battle, Ramos capitalized on a mistake I made, threw me, and won the contest.
I was gutted. Missing out on the medal in such an important competition hurt me, and I dwelled on it for a long time after. I watched the fight over with my coaches, looking at what I did wrong and what I need to improve. I dreamed about the fight, using that feeling of disappointment as fuel and motivation for future competitions.
But back to Abu Dhabi. Fate and the progress of the competition made that after losing in the semifinal I would fight for the bronze medal against Joana Ramos. Not only was this a chance for me to win a medal in a big competition, but also to make my country proud after all the hassle we had and make amends for my loss in the European Championships.
Once again it was a tough fight which went into golden score, but this time I came out the winner.
In judo, every fight ends in a bow and a handshake. As we met in the center of the mat Ramos shook my hand and pulled me in a small embrace, “I’m proud of our fight” she said in my ear. When I bumped into her again backstage before the awarding ceremony she told me how especially happy she was I won a medal in this particular competition. She repeated it twice and it was clear she meant her words.
What an example of a true sportswoman and a class act. Her gesture was the exact opposite of the behavior of the organizers and was the best example of how the values of sport are part of life. I was touched and moved by her words. Of course I’m happy with my medal and performance, but it’s Joana Ramos’ true act of sportsmanship that I cherish.
Every day in life or on the sporting field we have a chance to show our best selves, the values we care about. My experience with Ramos reminds me what beautiful and great moments we can share with the world when we follow these values.