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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. Following the stories of the first 16 Olympic champions in the series, winners from 1976 to 2021, we now share the words of Severine Vandenhende, Sydney 2000 Olympic champion in the -63kg category.
Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

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 think both. High level athletes are different. Their will and determination are different from other people’s and their paths are different from each other. The social environment is different from one sport to another too. For instance, in fighting sports the social environment can be more accessible and includes people from all classes. Often people arrive having already had to fight through life. For some of the athletes, sport is a way to escape from a tough environment. Sport can be a source of motivation and success especially when compared with that initial pre-sport hard way of life."

Severine Vandenhende on her way to gold in Sydney. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"There are people with talent but talent is not enough and a lot of work is needed. It can be a real vocation even. So, there are some athletes who can be successful in judo but maybe have such talent that they could be successful in other sports too. Really working for it in a focussed way has helped some to transcend talent and reach excellence.

I didn’t really realise I had touched the holy grail, not until way, way after. It’s the people around me who made me realise that I reached the top goal and that level of excellence. For me it was like a logical thing as I was always involved in judo and it seemed like a normal goal but only now I realise it was exceptional to actually reach it."

Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"I have obviously had a successful career but it was a long time after that day that I realised I could use it to transmit to others and help with their careers.

I don’t find it necessary to hold my medal up, to put my medal in front. I performed there in Sydney, on that day. Other people introduce me with this achievement but I do not. It’s not in my nature to put myself in front; maybe I learned that modesty in the earlier part of my life, maybe in judo.

Perhaps my one main special quality, the one which drove me to that gold medal, was determination. One year before the Games I was injured and it wasn’t easy to come back. That wasn’t the only time injuries affected things. For Atlanta, I was number two and not number one in the team and I said to myself then that I would be Olympic champion in Sydney but there were so many injuries."

Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"During the Olympic Games preparation, for Sydney, just before we travelled, we did a cycling training camp and I said that if I have to put my foot down then I can’t be the champion. That was my goal, my motivation, never to step down and always to put it all into the goal. Before the Olympic Games my results played a role but for the Games itself I put everything from before to one side and I worked extra hard to reach that one goal. I tried not to think about history or results specifically.

Before every fight on that day and I would say to myself ‘I am ready and nothing can happen.’ I had different types of fights during the day. I felt that the final could have been hours long but like on the bike I was unable to step down, I only had positive feelings.

Thinking about if I am the same person I was before the medal, yes, I’m the same person I always was. Had I not won it, I have no idea, it didn’t happen that way.”

Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

Severine continues to work within the in the national coaching team for France.