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Interviewing an Olympic champion is something special and always delivers thought-provoking words and ideas; it’s a unique kind of education. Sharing those thoughts and memories is imperative and so to follow the stories of the first 9 Olympic champions in the series, winners from 1976 to 2021, we now share the words of Urska Zolnir, 2012 Olympic champion in the -63kg category.

We introduced the statistics, the almost impossible feat and the question in our first article in the series, which can be found here:

A reminder of the question:

It could be said that to be in the company of an Olympic judo champion is to be presented with someone whom has reached an absolute pinnacle, a ceiling which cannot be surpassed; there is nowhere further to ascend in the world of sport. We often find Olympic champions speaking with freedom and certainty, unafraid to share an opinion, speaking of their lives and paths with confidence. For many we feel there is peace, and that can be magnetic and inspiring.

So the question is, did they become Olympic champion because of that character or did they become that person having won the Olympic gold medal?

“I won the Olympic gold medal in part because of my character and in part because of my family and my coach. It’s a triangle and each side is important to create such a big medal. You need to know you are not alone there and that you have people around you to help you reach the right path."

Gold for Urska and coach Fabjan Marjan in London

"But the story after the medal is totally different; it was very hard. I came out of that period feeling very humble and also realised that life is so much more than just the medals and the winning and the training. My family and especially my daughter are now the priority and actually it is them who really made me who I am now, not the Olympic medal. I met my husband after the Olympics and so maybe that was meant to be, maybe our timeline and all I went through was exactly as it should be."

Urska and family at home in beautiful Slovenia

"After the Olympics I approached everything with the same drive and purpose I’d had while training. I see what I want to reach and I reach for it. For example, I wanted to finish school and earn my marketing degree and so I did it. I wanted my own family and although it was hard I did it. Judo was not in my mind after the Olympics but my approach and attitude were the same, just with different objectives.

After I reached all those other goals I came back to judo. It is a big part of my life, since I started when I was ten. I did it through the whole of my childhood and onward for 25 years. Other people, away from our judo life, learn things during those years, from birth until 25 or thirty and their lives continue in that way, on their path, in their direction, often with broad perspectives but my way was only judo and so after the Olympic gold I took a break. I have slowly come back but perhaps with a new perspective, maybe also a broader one.

After the Olympic final I said to myself ‘thank goodness it’s finished.’ I didn’t think about celebrating the win or really that I was Olympic champion. Three years before that I had operations on both knees. I asked myself a lot if it was worth it. In the end it was but it took a long time to digest and reflect in the right way."

London 2012

"Today I see these cadets losing and crying after their matches but want to tell them that each loss or even victory is actually such a small piece of the puzzle of their lives. They’re growing and just need positive input. Our federations should be seen as the judo villages in which to raise good children, good humans, and to educate everyone about how to behave all along the way.”

Which parts of your character, your behaviour, made you Olympic champion?

“I’m stubborn! I don’t want to quit anything once I have started it. I’m glad I did it all. Yesterday I was alone and thinking about what a privilege it is to have solitude sometimes, especially now I am a mum but I realise in these quiet moments that I am still following the path I was raised on and I achieve my goals the same way. Maybe I need to slow it down, maybe it’s too much but I always want to be the best and to give of my best."

Urska Zolnir, Olympic champion

"No matter how hard things were that we, as elite judoka, went through, we now have friends all over the world, who mean something to us. This is priceless. I wouldn’t go back and do it all again but I have to clarify that. If I had to stand back with it all ahead of me and I knew what was coming, it would be too much, but step by step, getting through it from the inside, it was worth it.”