On day one of the World Judo Masters 2023, 2014 world bronze medallist, 33 year old Maria Celia Laborde (USA) won silver at -48kg. This silver medal is her first on the World Judo Tour since that 2014 podium finish. The nine year gap is extraordinary and makes us think. How is it possible to find the top level again after so long and especially for a lightweight in her 30s?

We have seen Laborde build again with a couple of continental open golds and a first Pan Am medal for almost a decade. There have been a few seventh places in the last year or so and a 5th place in Tel Aviv in February, so we could see that she is rebuilding her career, her level and her confidence. Silver at the Masters though, in this crazy field of champions, that is really something and deserves comment.

“I was retired. I was only 24 then and I wasn’t really thinking of ever coming back. In the USA, where I now live, there was a competition that is not so hard but there was some prize money. I had been out for many years but I thought it would be fun and I liked the idea of having some prize money. That was in 2021 and I had just gained my full American citizenship. I won the event and I thought ‘wow!’ I was out for almost 8 years and assumed my momentum and my judo fitness would not survive but it did.

Jhonny Prado, US National Coach, saw me there and said I would have a good chance to still make the US team. If I wanted to keep going he would help me. USA Judo supported me to attend my first continental open in Tunisia and I won again but I thought I could do better. It was a bit complicated but I needed to find a way to compete at the PanAms. I did and I won bronze. It wasn’t the goal but it was actually a good result. With this medal USA Judo took me officially into the team."

Maria with coach Jhonny Prado and the USA team at the Masters

"I think all the training I had in my early judo life in Cuba, my body remembered all of that. It is maybe not normal but in that time away I was really focussed on how to earn a living and just training in the gym sometimes for exercise but not for elite sport.”

With a long time away, a change of home surroundings, coming back to the highest level, high enough to win a place in the final of the World Judo Masters, could not have been expected by most but Maria has a different viewpoint. “It wasn’t so much a surprise for me to reach this level again. I love to train hard and in the US it is very different from where I grew up. I don’t stay in the US all the time and with the freedom I have to travel now and search for the environments I need, I can find high level partners in Japan and Valencia, for example.”

Still, several 7th places on the World Judo Tour cannot be compared with a silver medal at the Masters, and not just any Masters but one staging contests for 14 Olympic and 33 world champions across the 3 days of competition. This stage is very different, the elite or the elite are here.

Silver at the 2023 World Judo Masters for Laborde (USA)

“Being in Japan for a camp for 3 weeks before the Masters really helped me. There was a huge volume of training, a lot of high quality randori and I felt it making a difference. I felt a medal in Hungary was possible.

My hardest fight in Budapest was the first against Shira Rishony (ISR), as we have known each other for so long. It’s a complicated fight. She’s so good and we have a similar style. We are friends too. I didn’t really know if I would win. I was positive but in the Masters you never know. I would do everything to win that match but it’s never guaranteed. One mistake and you will be out, especially here. I think actually she made just one mistake and I caught her at that right moment.

I don’t really study judo so much and maybe I should but I watch people at the events and I feel like my body will do the right things with the information it has. Each fight was a different style but I think for some of them my style is tricky. At -48kg everyone is a little bit crazy but I like that, it suits me. For the semi-final against the Serbian, Nikolic, I was ready. I have beaten her before and that gave me confidence. I put my whole heart into it. With me, I never stop. It’s not possible to stop."

Beating Nikolic (SRB) in Tel Aviv, 2023

"Here I feel like I am back to do judo almost for fun. This is such a great environment for me. I enjoy it so much. Now if I lose, it’s not good and I don’t like it but it’s ok, I can recover. Now the pressure is really for funding. Better results mean better funding.

I have to keep fighting now. I will have Zagreb Grand Prix next. I don’t have any pressure, I just go to do my thing. Sometimes when I fight I feel the old pressure, like a habit of stress but once I get on to the mat the pressure goes completely and I love to fight; I’m learning new habits and it’s good.

I try to tell my teammates they must train hard and then always carry positivity and be relaxed away from training. Be happy, live happy. I’m really honest and sometimes maybe too direct. Sometimes they ask me advice and they are shocked with how straight I am, ‘yes you need to train more and get better.’ Honesty is really important in judo. Some don’t want to hurt each others’ feelings but how can we get better if we don’t talk honestly about the gaps in training and the things we have to improve? I’m not what people expect in US judo but I will keep going this way, with honesty and also positivity.”

Maria Celia Laborde was not among the favourites, we have said that, but she is a big supporter of herself and believes that her new positive situation gives her the ability to find her best level. In Budapest she proved herself right!

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