Next mission for new judo world champion — Olympic gold
Israeli Sagi Muki's training regimen includes running on the beach with his dog and re-watching 'Rocky.'
Sagi Muki is hoping for some deja vu.
The Israeli athlete just won the gold medal in Tokyo at the International Judo Federation's World Championships. And as he stood on the medal platform, listening to the Israeli anthem play over the loud speakers, he had one thought on his mind. In 11 months, he wants to be back in this exact spot, in this very building, on this very stage.
"That's exactly where the Olympics will be," Muki said of the 2020 Games, which will also be held in Japan. "I competed exactly in the same training house that I will compete in at the Olympics."
For the 27-year-old Muki, this is the culmination of something he's been working on since he was a little kid. Growing up in the coastal Mediterranean city of Netanya, he started taking judo classes at just 4 years old. "I was an agile kid and my mom was trying to throw my energy into a positive direction," Muki told From The Grapevine when we reached him in Japan this week. "I started to do a lot of things before judo. I did swimming and some other hobbies, but when I went to judo I was in love from the first time."
He took lessons from Oren Smadja, the first to put Israel's judo prowess on the map when he won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. To this day, Smadja remains Muki's coach.
Muki competed at the 2016 Olympics in Rio where he finished in fifth place, despite coping with two herniated discs at the time. But that only garnered him a supporting role behind the headline makers Yarden Gerbi and Ori Sasson, two fellow Israelis who both medaled at the Games. This time around, Muki aims to emerge from their shadows. With his first-place finish last week in Tokyo, he's ranked as one of the best in the world. He's now become the one to beat.
"The big challenge is to get back home and still be hungry," Muki told us. "When I get home I will not let this World Championship put me in an illusion that I can now rest. I need to work harder. I need to train harder."
Muki is preparing by practicing for hours – every day, twice a day. His workout includes a combination of cardio, physical therapy and mental exercises. He lives and trains in Netanya, known as the sports capital of Israel. With a quarter million residents, the city boasts pro basketball, handball and baseball teams. A 13,000-seat stadium hosts three professional soccer teams. The founder of the martial art known as Krav Maga opened a sports academy in Netanya. The city is also home to the Wingate Institute, a renowned sports facility where Muki and previous Israeli Olympians have trained.
Of the nine Olympic medals Israel has won over the years, five have been for judo. David Wiseman is the co-founder of Follow Team Israel, a popular Facebook group which shares the stories of Israeli athletes. "The country has invested so much in judo, and so many kids do it. And for judo, all you need is a room," he told us. "For a young kid, judo isn’t just a sport – but it really teaches them life skills. Also, it's completely open to both boys and girls. Because of the success of Sagi and others, these kids have role models to look up to."
As Muki returns to Israel and gears up for the 2020 Olympics, he will serve as an inspiration for the next generation. In his spare time, he tells us that he likes to run on the beach with his dog, barbecue with friends and sing karaoke. He'll likely re-watch his favorite film, "Rocky," for the umpteenth time. "I get excited every time I see this movie again," he said of the inspirational Academy Award-winning classic.
And, after last week's win, he's still acclimating to his new status as a gold medal winner. "This is an amazing feeling. This is the dream since I was a kid," he said. "These two words are connected to me – world champion. When people come to me and say world champion, it's still hard to understand that it's for me. It's still a little bit strange. But I'll get used to it."
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