Last year we learned the terrible news that Slovenian judoka Anja Stangar was diagnosed with lymphoma. Since the beginning we have been following Anja and at the beginning of 2021 we were happy to see that she had won that terrible battle against cancer. The question was then clearly, how long it will take for Anja to be back on the tatami.

We now know the answer, as she recently won her national championship in Slovenia. As the Tbilisi Grand Slam is about to start, we met her and asked her how she feels being back on the tatami.

"When I stepped on the competition tatami in my first match, my head was full of emotions, but at the same time I had to keep focussed on the contest and the opponent who was standing in front of me. So the feelings were unique and I think it was the first time I actually started a competition with a smile on my face. I was so happy that I am able to participate in the competition, because it means that my physical condition improved, at least to the stage that I can compete at a national level. Half a year ago I wasn’t able to run for 2.5 km and I hardly managed 5 press-ups. I can say from my own experience that the return to the tatami was very different from coming back after a knee surgery.

You know, I have been looking forward to my first competition since I started with chemotherapy last year. I always had in my mind that I would have fully recovered from that disease when a referee points at me as the winner of a competition. To be honest, I really enjoyed everything, from the pressure and excitement of the competition to the warming-up and the competition itself, of course. I didn’t worry about my opponents or how the matches would go; I just wanted to fight.

After such a long and difficult 14 months, it was strange to feel adrenalin and pressure again, but I felt really good and I realised that I was able to win the competition.

I had been dreaming about my first competition back for a long time, so first of all I wanted to enjoy the day and I think that was the reason I didn’t feel so much pressure, compared to how I used to feel. However, in the first seconds of the final I made a big mistake and the opponent scored waza-ari; I was lucky it wasn’t ippon. I think this was the consequence of anxiety.

During chemotherapy I gained weight, mainly because of a drug that I took that holds water in cells. It creates edema all over your body. Beside that, I had infusions of 7 litres in 2 day periods. I was like a balloon!” Anna laughed, a knowing and relieved laugh.

“Of course for 4 months I wasn’t able to do much sport, so my body fat increased. Unfortunately it takes a lot of time and effort to get rid of that excess water and fat. When I finished all the treatment my immune system was very poor and rapid weight loss would suppress the immune system even more, so I made a plan with the clinical dietician at the oncology institute, learning how to lose weight slowly.

Now I am under 57kg, but there was no point in losing weight to do the national championships at -52kg as it is still too soon for me to practise rapid weight loss. This would be a huge stress for my body, one that is recovering from such devastating treatment. I continue with the plan to lose weight carefully, so for the international tournaments I will be back at -52kg, when the time is right. For the -57kg category I don’t have enough weight or muscle to be competitive.

To climb back to the International level I will go step by step. I started with the national competition and because I won I can now move to continental cups. When I will be able to compete at the continental level for a medal, then I will be able to move up to the World Judo Tour. This is my next big dream, or maybe it is better to say ‘challenge.’

Today, first of all, I appreciate being healthy and that I am able to practise judo, because now I don’t take it for granted, like I did before. So on one hand my perspective of life and judo has changed. I realised life is much more than train-compete-eat-sleep and that I have a life full of opportunities in front of me, even if I don’t make it back to the elite level. My case couldn’t be a better example to show the importance of studying alongside a sporting career, because the latter can end overnight.

Maybe it was also the first time I actually saw judo not only from the competitive perspective and I just enjoyed practising our beautiful sport. I now see training hard as a privilege. However, on the other hand, my mind as an elite athlete didn’t change. I still think that I have to do something outstanding in my life and not end as an average person. So to conclude, my ambitions in judo remain, but my view on life is broader. Thinking in a very, very positive way, I can be grateful that life gave me this experience, so as a person I am definitely stronger now."

Through that terrible challenge, as Anja told us, she learned a lot and moreover she is willing to pass on her message, which she does perfectly. Winning the national championships after what she went through is already an amazing achievement and she must be warmly congratulated for that, but being able to work through such an analysis of the situation is maybe even stronger.

Over the weekend, she'll undoubtedly be watching the Tbilisi Grand Slam and she'll enjoy watching it, keeping in mind that sooner or later, she wants to be back there. 

To conclude, Anja also added, “I would like to thank the whole IJF team for the work being done, also for non-competitive sport, for promoting judo as a lifestyle and for growing our judo community all over the world. It gives people a place where they can find friends, live a healthy lifestyle and have the opportunity to prove and improve themselves." With this everything is said.

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