Telma Monteiro (POR) has 15 European medals including 6 golds. She also has 5 Olympic appearances and 5 world medals, the first earned in Cairo almost 20 years ago. Telma is a veteran, a real veteran of judo and she doesn’t mind it being said. Her aim in this cycle is to become the first judoka to qualify for 6 Olympic Games.
Four of Telma's Olympic backpatches; an incomplete collection from an incredible Olympic career. Photo courtesy of Telma Monteiro (POR).

In November her plans had to shift when she suffered a knee injury that required surgery. It’s been “5 months and 9 days” since the surgery, Telma says, and she knows it’s too soon to put her rebuilt knee through high level competitive judo. However, her goal is special, unique, and her determination to achieve it is part of the reason her team believe in her so steadfastly. Nervously they agreed to her competing at the 2024 Europeans.

Telma is open about her reasons for fighting in Zagreb, “I plan to close my career fighting in the champions league with my team but this Olympics will certainly be my last.”

Getting the Paris summer Games isn’t yet a sure thing though as during her recovery she dropped out of direct qualification, making some competition compulsory if the ultimate goal was to be achieved.

“Before the fights I was so nervous; it was really one of the hardest things I have done in my life. I know 5 months is too short and it’s a big risk. There is such a huge possibility of getting injured again. I definitely don’t recommend this way to anyone."

Monteiro's first win of the day at the Zagreb European Championships, 2024.

"The moments immediately before the first fight were tough, it was tough to manage my emotions. Honestly it felt like I had never demanded so much of myself before. I was ready to feel it, I knew it was coming but it was a really strong intensity. After the fight started, I was completely free and I trusted that this competitor side of me would kick in, that 'hajime' would signal for the normal fighting Telma to arrive.

With the surgery and all the work I put in, I didn’t want to feel that again. The qualification is really tight and we never know until the end, we can’t guarantee our places, so I have to fight like I will do it, like I will qualify, regardless of my difficult situation. I promised myself I would give everything. It will give me a sense of peace in the end, to know I gave everything. To believe I can qualify for a 6th Olympic Games is what drives me to continue."

Olympic bronze in Rio De Janeiro, 2016.

"I know the effort and the resilience needed and so I have to put my emotions in a box. It’s a change of balance that’s required now. I have to feel some things through this process. To feel means being present and it also means to be fully engaged with my own healing but the emotions can’t take over and so I have to manage everything.

Yesterday I cried a lot, not about winning or losing but because of how much we invest. To simply be able to step on the mat in Zagreb was a huge effort but it was a first step and now I have to manage to do the rest.

This challenge is all part of my experience. I never did it this way before. In the past I always qualified among the best, usually as one of the seeded athletes and so to live a new experience, even if difficult, is enriching. I didn’t know if I would handle it so well but I am and I’m glad I have this new moment.

The team allowed me to fight here even though it was not an easy decision. The only thing they asked me was to promise I would stop if I felt any pain at all. I said I would. In the repechage I felt some pain and had to stop. One voice in my head was telling me not to continue though maybe I could have finished the fight and won it. The fighter in me doesn’t do this kind of thing, withdrawing, but I had to think about the main goal and not just my fighter spirit in the moment."

The most torn decision, to withdraw and finish in 7th place in Zagreb.

"The strongest aspect of my judo is my mentality and I do know how to play this judo game. I’m observant and I really can read people, I can feel them. Anything you give me, I will use it. I can manage all aspects of the fight and this time I had to manage it not just for the Europeans but with this extra layer of the future, thinking about the Olympic Games. I had to really draw on this special objectivity and maybe without all of my past this would not have been possible. I want the best preparation but I still have to qualify too. I want this 6th qualification more than I want a 12th European medal. It is a medal worth having but not at the expense of my Olympic Games.“

The first -57 kg European title, Tbilisi, 2009. Photo credit: EJU.

Telma, through clear goal-setting, a unified team and objective decision-making, escaped from the jaws of potential re-injury and with further rehabilitation, strengthening and good planning will compete in Dushanbe in the penultimate grand slam of the qualification period. As she said, the only way to feel peace at the end of her incredible career is to know that she gave it everything.

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