In 1981 Juha Salonen won a bronze medal at the Maastricht World Championships at +95 kg. That was the last world championship medal for Finland right up to the 2024 Abu Dhabi edition. There has been a handful of judoka in the 4 and a half decades since who have placed at the biggest events, such as Nina Koivumaki’s 5th place at the Rio 2007 Worlds but there have been no further medals.

Since 2009 there has been a distinct acceleration with several medals being won at the ‘World Cup’ level and regular top 8 finishes at the continental championships. Jaana Sundberg began to win medals on the new World Judo Tour including golds in Baku and Moscow and later a silver medal in Paris. In 2015 a new team began to emerge, a group of young judoka including cadet Luukas Saha and junior Martti Puumaleinen. They were beginning to place on the Cup circuit.

Luukas Saha competing at the 2018 World Junior Championships.

In 2020, the Finnish Judo Association, led by President Ese Niemi, appointed a new head coach, Rok Draksic, a World Judo Masters medallist and 3-time Olympian from Slovenia, and with the opening of the new integrated elite sports facility in Helsinki, ‘URHEA,’ Finland found itself on a new path.

Rok Draksic on the podium at the 2011 World Judo Masters.

In 2023 Martti Puumaleinen did the impossible and won the World Judo Masters, the first Finn ever to do so. He shared the podium with Rakhimov (TJK), Saito (JPN) and Zaalishvili (GEO), no luck involved. Just to be certain that the world would understand, he repeated his podium-topping performance to take the European title just a few months later. In the same period, Pihla Salonen took silver at the junior Europeans in The Hague and Ihanamaki won bronze at the u23 Europeans. The flow of medals was beginning to create a buzz and a renewed belief within the team.

Martti winning the Masters title, 2023.

On 19th May 2024, 25 year old Luukas Saha fought in the Abu Dhabi World Championships from his place at 38th in the world ranking, ten places shy of direct qualification and with virtually no hope of qualifying. He got down to work and began to accumulate wins. WRL67 Moudetere (ALG), WRL49 Gerchev (BUL) and WRL23 Bouba (FRA) were all beaten. Bouba had taken care of the category’s number one, Denis Vieru (MDA) and Saha took care of Bouba!

Saha (FIN) vs Bouba (FRA).

Luukas Saha lost to WRL14 Piras (ITA) in the quarter-final and then moved forward into the final block thanks to a bye in the repechage; WRL9 Emomali (TJK) awaited him in the bronze medal contest. Saha executed an incredibly fast and clearly well drilled transition phase and held Emomali in less than a minute of contest time to become Finland’s first world medallist for 43 years!

The turnover against Emomali (TJK).

“It’s been more than 40 years since a Finnish judoka won a world medal,” said Saha. “This is a special feeling for sure. I’m glad someone finally did it and I’m glad it’s me because I put the work in towards it, we all did. This is exactly the result I think we all needed, as a team. This is something to lift everyone’s spirits and make them believe they can really do it."

The final moments, Saha winning bronze at the 2024 World Championships.

"We have improved a lot and I think it’s clear to see that. We can see several members of the team start to get small results. Even if it’s not you it’s your friend and so we all move up together slowly, slowly. To see Martti win the Europeans and the Masters, for example. I remember I was away in a spa during the Masters, with my girlfriend, a quiet place for relaxation but as Martti won we disrupted everything! It meant something for all of us.”

“I was not even born then, when Salonen won the medal in Maastricht! It was a different time,” added Rok Draksic. “There have been some moments in 2007 and 2012/13 with 5th places; they were close but it’s the medal that really counts.”

"It means something to all of us."

Why Luukas Saha? Why was it Luukas who took the extra step?

“He has been in the shadows really, working in a sort of unnoticed way but he trains so hard. He has made some mistakes in contests, has had some sickness and some injuries but in the last few months we have seen him grow a lot and we start to see that if he doesn’t make a mistake, he can win medals. This team is now here for a medal and not just for some smaller points.

While all the team is listening to the plans and strategies, he was listening even more intently, quietly. He follows everything, just working, working in the right way. He didn’t know the draw until his warm-up and even then it was only shared with him fight by fight. I made the contest strategy in advance and we worked on it in the warm-up ahead of each fight. Only small tips are given on the day but we implement debriefs and technical work specific to their fights in our regular training. They are ready, they have done the work and we have done the analysis so this system works for us."

URHEA, Finland.

"Most of the Finnish team works this way. The benefit is to think only about what is right in front of them, no stress in advance, and if you want to win, you have to beat everyone anyway. For some, if they know in advance, it can bring some nerves and we want to avoid it.

For the whole team, having already had Martti winning big medals and now Valtteri Olin took 5th place at the Europeans and now Luukas has a world medal, it means the team spirit is high and the ability of the whole team has created belief. If one makes a mistake, they all believe another can now come and win. They are winning and losing together as a team and this is very positive."

Valtteri Olin (FIN) competing at the 2024 World Championships 3 weeks after placing 5th at the European Championships.

"Luukas is 25 now and although we could predict many things for the next cycle, right now there is no post-Paris in our thoughts. We are so focused on this cycle. We know some athletes in the group have not yet shown everything and there is a lot more to come. Luukas was 7th at the Europeans last year. He was a shido away from that last win to get to the final block. He could have been the first European medallist for us in 30 years but Martti took that in the end. Now Lukas has our first world medal for 43 years. They are making new records and seeing themselves as part of a great future for Finnish judo."

Luukas Saha on the world championship podium.

"We have a lot of athletes for the future, men and women. The men are more in front now but the future will see us achieving with both.“

Do you see Finland participating in the biggest mixed teams events in the future? That would really be something.

“I like challenges, so let’s see. We have a small budget but maybe we will have a Finnish team eventually. We will do some lower level team events in the coming years and I think we will reach at least European level with our mixed team soon.

For now we have to continue on our road to Paris, that is the focus. In Rio Finland had one continental quota place but there was no-one in Tokyo. Now, with Lukas’ medal, he joins Martti for Finland to have two athletes qualified directly. We can see the improvement and now it is simply a case of continuing to work and improve.”

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