Judo

Avtandil Tchrikishvili - I have not yet achieved such heights as to stop

Irakli Magradze
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The Best Georgian Athlete of 2013

Avtandil Tchrikishvili is just 22 years old, but despite this young age he is a promising judoka and already the European champion. The year 2013 proved to be the best of his career so far: the young athlete won the gold medal in the men's 81kg event at the European Judo Championship and the silver medal in the World Championship. The Georgian team was the winner of both the European Team Championship in Budapest and the World Team Championship in Rio de Janeiro. Tchrikishvili was in the national team for both events and made a huge contribution to defeating the Russian team in both finals.

A Japanese teacher, Jigoro Kano, founded judo in 1882 in the outskirts of Tokyo and opened the first judo school in a Buddhist temple in the same year. Hardly anyone could imagine back then that this martial art and philosophy would become an Olympic sport or that Georgia, located on the crossroads of Europe and Asia, would become one of the leading countries in this sport. I do not know precisely how far away the Eisho-ji temple, where the first school of judo was established, is from Norio in Georgia, where the current number one ranked judoka in the 81kg category was born, but the fact is that judo has got a new champion far from its native land.

Avtandil Tchrikishvili started training at the age of nine, though not in the village of Norio in the Gardabani district, but in Tbilisi, and not in judo, but in athletics. It was his grandma's desire for young Avtandil to engage in sports and it was she who took him to train. Today, he acknowledges the contribution his grandma made to his success. He trained in athletics for a couple of years, which made his body flexible, and then switched to the type of sport he was more interested in. The beginning was difficult – he had training sessions starting in the early morning and it was very hard for him to get up and go to them, but his grandma did not allow him to relax.

"Initially, I lost all the time... Being aware of that, my father often advised grandma to let me drop judo training because he thought that it had no sense. When I went to competitions grandma used to warn me not to tell my parents that I had lost; at the same time, she encouraged me by telling me that if I trained hard I would achieve results. I started training in judo at the age of 11 and in the first four years, I should say, I did not achieve success. At the age of 15, I was among the top three in the Georgian Championship, but that was my maximum, I was unable to improve that result. Nevertheless, at that time, I still had confidence and believed that with hard work I could do more. When I first won the Georgian U20 Championship I was 17. I did not expect that; then another victory followed and so it has continued ever since...

"At that time, for the first time ever, I went abroad to participate in a tournament in the Czech Republic. Athletes from many countries participated in that and I won third place. That was a good result for me. Next year, I became the winner of the Georgian U20 Championship, which enabled me to make it into the national team. Thereafter, I improved my results year after year and felt that I was getting stronger and stronger. At the age of 19, I won every junior tournament held. I became the champion of both Europe and the world; I was named the best junior sportsman of 2010. Then I moved into the adult category and the series of defeats started again..."

As Tchrikishvili grew, he left the junior arena and moved into the higher level. As was the case at the outset of his career, at the beginning of this new stage he was initially unsuccessful. Eventually, things took a turn for the better and, by 2013, the judoka was attaining almost the highest results possible:

"It took time for me to get accustomed to competing in the adult category; initially the training proved very difficult and I failed to achieve the desired results. In hindsight, I think that it proved very difficult for me to switch to the higher level from the junior stage; I had to take a break and get some rest. I had the belief that no one could beat me and always competed with self-confidence. And still, during one whole year, I never won.

"I was unable to win the Grand Prix, the Grand Slam, though at tournaments of a relatively lower level I still did well. My main achievements are connected with 2013. One may say that since the age of 17, I have had no rival in my weight category in Georgia, but my main goal was to gain recognition in the international arena. 2013 was a very good year – regardless of whether I was in shape or not, I have not returned from any tournament without a medal. The only thing I regret is that I was not able to win the final [of the World Championship]. It was a regrettable defeat and was perhaps due to bad luck. Had I won this final, there would not have been anything left to win this year."

Avtandil Tchrikishvili can be singled out for having many qualities. One of most important is his boundless diligence. He trains hard and denies himself many things in order to achieve results. Apart from personal qualities, he is also distinguished by the brilliant performance of his favorite maneuver: his so-called uchi mata is regarded as the best throw. Moreover, Tchrikishvili's big advantage is that he is ambidextrous and can wrestle with both hands equally well, something which proves to be a serious headache for his opponents and the trainers of rival teams.

"It is said that training makes the weak strong and the strong even stronger. Without hard work it is impossible to develop into a strong athlete; you cannot rely on talent alone. You must refuse everything else and spend time on training. No mater what happens, I turn everything off at 11p.m. and, whether I like or not, go to bed. I remember at times those when I was unable to win for an entire year, I still always returned home at 10:30p.m., no matter where I had been, and went to sleep in order to get up early and start training. That was my principled decision. Moreover, patience is very important. You may do something a hundred times and fail every time, but you must not give up and must continue working until you succeed. I think that the physical qualities of my body are conducive – I do not remember anyone overcoming me physically, even though all the other sportsmen I grew up with undertook training of equal intensity. Another important component in judo is orientation and flexibility, which I developed when training for athletics in my childhood.

"My favorite maneuver is uchi mata and I use it frequently. Things have reached the stage where all of my rivals and their coaches attentively study each move I perform, they attempt to figure out what my strengths are in order to block me. When an athlete is among the top ten judokas, attention towards him increases and I am first place in my weight category. I primarily like the uchi mata throw for esthetic reasons, it is beautiful and brave. Moreover, I have always been fond of wrestling upright. Ever since my childhood I never liked seeing athletes wrestling half bent over, I thought it made no sense to try and win in such a manner. While you perform uchi mata you are standing upright and throw your opponent from the neck.

The fight of Loïc Pietri and Avtandil Tchrikishvili at the World Judo Championship in Brazil. August 2013. Photo: AFP
"I think one of my great advantages is that I can wrestle from both sides. This is a rarity, such [ambidextrous] athletes are very few. The hand with which you seize the neck of your opponent is the working hand and if it is neutralized, you are blocked and can do nothing. If my hand is blocked, I can use my other hand and wrestle from the other side – this is not a problem for me."

In 2011, Irakli Tsirekidze won a bronze medal at the World Judo Championship. That medal was the only prize Georgia won at that championship and in the period that immediately followed. In 2013, however, Avtandil Tchrikishvili and Varlam Liparteliani changed the status quo. Even more, if they had had a bit more luck, at least one of them, if not both, would have won a gold medal.

"I went to the European Championship suffering from an injury – I had twisted an ankle. Before the championship I had not practiced on the tatami [judo mat] for one month. Before leaving for the championship, I told the coach of the national team, Irakli Uznadze, that it would make no sense taking me there. I was able to exercise my hands and train my upper part body, but I was unable to run or wrestle. Ten days before the championship, I trained only three times with lower weight category athletes, but during those sessions I quickly tired and that made me nervous. That's how I went into the championship that I ended up winning. To tell the truth, I did not find it difficult to fight any of my opponents there. Some might say that I did not win by a great margin of points, but that was because I did not need more.

"After the European Championship I took some rest; then the national team won third place at the master's tournament in Tyumen, Russia. Thereafter we had a very good and beneficial training period in Korea. The Koreans have a very good school; we improved many components there and my self-confidence increased too. Back in Georgia, we then had physical training in Bakuariani and then in Kvareli. To cut a long story short, we were well prepared for the World Championship.

"It was very important that we arrived in Brazil 10-12 days before the start of the Championship. This helped us to get acclimatized and, at the same time, made it easier to shed some weight.

"After Tsirekidze's victory [gold in the 2008 Olympics], no Georgian had won a gold medal and so it is good that both I and Varlam Liparteliani were able to win silver medals. What I regret is that we both failed in the final. The opponent of Liparteliani in the final was one whom he had defeated six months before and my opponent was one whom I had defeated three months before. In the semi-final my rival was a Russian athlete and I spared no energy in my fight against him. He got so tired in that fight that he subsequently refused to participate in the fight for third place. After that, I had a mere 15 minutes to rest before the final and was not able to properly restore my energy. In short, the French athlete who beat me in the final, Loïc Pietri, has extended the list of those judokas with whom I wrestle against with a special zeal. Other such athletes are, for example, Russia's Ivan Nifontov and America's Travis Stevens, the latter defeated me at the 2012 London Olympic Games but, just recently, I have defeated him twice."

Bouts between Georgian and Russian judokas are always special events, but in 2013 they were especially interesting. The Georgian national team defeated the Russian team first in the European Championship and then in the final of the World Championship. Other countries sense the importance of the Georgia-Russia meetings and everyone regards them as interesting shows.

"We compete with tenfold energy against Russians; we do not have the right to be defeated by them. On a personal level, we athletes have very good relationships with each other, but when it comes to fighting, we always want to have the Georgian flag hoisted the highest. This is especially true in the case of our rivalry with Russia; we want to make the Georgian people happy and to dedicate our victory to the memory of those fallen fighters [of the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008]. If it is not a big deal for others, it is at least a small victory for Georgians. We always repeat a mantra – 'god forbid, we lose to Russians....'

"Vladimir Putin often attends judo tournaments. When we met Russia in the final of the European Championship, Putin was there and wanted to award the prize to his compatriots. But we defeated the Russians and we were the heroes of the awards ceremony... They did not expect that we would win and [Russian] TV did not show Putin at all, it was as if he was not at the final."

The Georgian national team is one of the best, if not the best, in the world. Each weight category has its outstanding athlete and the high results attained by the national team as a whole indicate the unity of its members. At the same time, it is important that candidates for the national team and junior athletes are strong individual sportsmen, something which was proved by the highly competitive Georgian Championship and the victory of the junior national team at the World Championship.

Avtandil Tchrikishvili at the World Judo Championship in Brazil. August 2013. Photo: AFP
"Our team is very friendly and united. We are happy about one another's success; when we see that one of us is doing well we do not allow ourselves to lose. In order to be eligible for participating in the World Championship we were required to have athletes in every weight category; therefore, Lasha Shavdatuashvili had to shed six kilos in two days. He did not eat or drink anything for two days and, at the same time, ran a lot. He asked us to just follow him to stop him falling down in case he fainted. And Lasha did all this for the sake of the team. One can imagine our zeal after seeing that. He was in such a poor condition that no one expected Shavdatuashvili to win; in fact, he lost all his matches, but seeing how hard he tried to compete, we wanted to win each and every fight for him.

"In general, our team is very strong. I think that any of our judokas have the chance of achieving the highest position in leading tournaments. Everyone acknowledges that we have never had such a strong team and I hope this will be proved. It is worth noting that the team is very young, its oldest member is 27-year-old Adam Okruashvili. It is also important that those who are just beyond the team do not allow us to relax. A very good generation of judokas is coming: Ghviniashvili, Margiani, Gigani, Chkhvimiani – these are the people who, if need be, can replace the current members of the national team."

Tchrikishvili is only 22 years old and yet, in terms of the ratings of the International Judo Federation, is the leader of the 81kg weight category. Although he is the European champion, he seems to be very sorry about his failure in the final of World Championship and will try to improve the situation in Chelyabinsk, next year. What more can we expect from this athlete? Only the highest results – if we take a glimpse at the results of 2013, one cannot have any other assumption. Bearing in mind his boundless diligence, principled nature and capacity to mobilize, and on top of all that, his talent, Tchrikishvili will surely raise the Georgian flag in various cities of the world...

"I intend to become the world champion and will spare no effort in attaining that. As regards the Olympic Games, of course, I will go there to compete for the gold medal, but it is too early to think about that yet. I am number one in the world ratings and I do not think there is any other judoka in my weight category whom I cannot defeat. I will stay in the sport while I am still fit for that and will do my utmost in order to have no future regrets. I plan to fight at least until 2020 and then if I am fit to continue – I will continue, why not?

"I think I will fight for at least another seven or eight years. Once the final of the World Championship ended I was already looking forward to the next championship... I have enough zeal; one victory is not sufficient for me, I want to win the championship for a second, a third time. Success in sport is achieved by very hard work and much suffering and, therefore, I cannot judge those who are content with only one success. But I do not look at that like this – I am a maximalist. I have not yet achieved such heights as to stop. Every year, I feel that I am making progress and, besides, 22 years is such an age when one can still develop more skills. I love this job and I think that I cannot do anything better with my life."

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