Two great champions, among the most representative of their generation, were present during the weekend for Grand Prix Portugal 2022: the French superstar Clarisse Agbegnenou (FRA), world and Olympic champion and the Israeli trailblazer Yarden Gerbi, world champion and Olympic medallist. Their incredible track record already says a lot about the two women, but it's seeing them interact, smile and reminisce about the good times that ultimately tells us more about who they really are.
For years their rivalry on the tatami has fueled all the comments, while their deep friendships have animated their daily lives. Since the end of the career of one and the putting on hold of that of the other, before her big return to the circuit, on a date she herself does not yet know, this relationship is only getting stronger and honestly, witnessing it does a world of good.
It would be illusory to list the differences and common points that unite Yarden and Clarisse or Clarisse and Yarden. It is fluid, as one slips into the answers of the other and vice versa. In any case, when we put the two champions in a tiny room in front of cameras and microphones, we become spectators to the most beautiful human feelings.
Clarisse and Yarden don't really notice the cameras anyway. It's not that they don't care about them, it's rather that they have fully integrated them into their lives. Without filter and without needing to break the ice, they open up to each other, say what they may never have said and underline why it is just a question of friendship in the most beautiful way and also mutual respect.
Yarden remembers all the moments that marked their lives. Clarisse has forgotten the details but remembers the moments that changed her. Thus during the defeat of the French in 2013 in the final of the World Championships, against the Israeli, as the climax of their rivalry, Yarden, the same evening, came to collect Clarisse in a limousine so that they could celebrate together. It's not trivial, especially since to this day Clarisse has still not completely digested this defeat, but this evening is undoubtedly one of the best they have spent together, without mentioning the holidays together and other beautiful moments.
Their first meeting dates back to 2010, in Tallinn, when Yarden saw a young French athlete arrive, whose carefree attitude and ability to transcend herself were brazenly visible. She immediately thought that the opposition would be strong. She was not mistaken. Clarisse for her part also thought that this Israeli judoka had something extra that would make her become her biggest rival and she was right too.
Yarden points out, "We are so different" and yet are they really? Nothing is less sure. Both have a thirst for victory, a desire for perfection, a need to be able to deliver everything on the tatami. Both are born competitors, who only live for the fight, in its most noble dimension. Both gave their all to their sport, putting themselves in danger to achieve their goals and their dreams. Both have left nothing to chance and today have no regrets on the path travelled, as painful as it was at times.
Yarden has already taken the leap. She retired and Clarisse somewhere regrets it. She liked the insecurity in which the presence of the other put her because she used it to progress each time, like after that 2013 world final, lost on the ground, which made her work her ne-waza more than ever.
Today, according to Yarden, Clarisse has all the qualities and no faults. She can do everything and it looks easy but that is because she works tirelessly. According to Clarisse, it was Yarden who pushed her to her limits and she admires her for that and for everything she's done since, from appearing on a desert island adventure show to hosting TV programmes or working in real estate in Portugal.
Yarden moved on, although she still admits that she misses the adrenaline of the competition, "but without the training" she underlines, with a burst of laughter. Clarisse took a step back because the last period before the Tokyo Games were very difficult, especially psychologically. With the gold medal around her neck, she felt filled with happiness and totally drained at the same time. She had given everything but she knows she still has things to do in judo and would like to end her career in Paris in 2024.
If there is a slight time lag between the two friends, one being already fully in her next life while the other is preparing for it in more or less than two years from now, they understand each other, support each other and advise each other at every stage of their lives. Yarden says it clearly, that a reconversion is not easy. Overnight athletes find themselves having to change their pace and having to find means of subsistence, but all this also comes with a freedom that is difficult to describe.
Clarisse and Yarden are therefore in phase, totally and with ease. One of the points on which they totally agree is that all of this was made possible thanks to judo, which is a school of life like no other. "Judo taught me to win, but also and perhaps above all to lose and also to simply live," underlines Clarisse. "There is nothing more difficult than the career of a judoka who wants to become an Olympic champion," explains Yarden, before adding "yes, but before that there is the pleasure, the happiness of practice and that is what is most important, whether you become a champion or not. Judo has taught us so much and serves us so much in our daily lives."
We could spend hours watching and listening to them because ultimately neither one nor the other needs us to keep this friendship alive. To the trick question of knowing where they see themselves in ten years, the answer flares up, "We have absolutely no idea, but what is certain is that we will continue to develop what unites us. In a few years, we will meet with our respective families, our children and we will pass on our values to them."
There is no doubt. At this level of interaction, common projects could well see the light of day, because as Clarisse points out, "Using our notoriety to help others, that's something that motivates us,” but everything in its time.
They understand each other because they have experienced the same thing, each in their own way, but in a way that would not have been the same without the other. What is also certain is that whatever happens, Yarden and Clarisse will not change. They will keep their beautiful smiles, will continue to crunch life at a maximum and continue to topple mountains to make life spicier.
Full interview to be published soon