To become a national judo champion, it takes more than just hitting the gym. When St. Clements teenagers Martin and Natalie Rygielski made it to the Canadian Judo Championship in Saguenay, Quebec, at least half the fights were mental.
“You never underestimate your opponent, but you have to be really confident walking into the fight,” said Natalie. “You have to focus a lot on what you’re going to do and plan out your fight. If you’re going with a tougher opponent, sometimes your coach will talk to you and put you in the right place.”
“You really get used to the pressure of the environment,” said Martin, who has been to the nationals five times. “I go into my fights thinking: I know what I have to do; I know the preparation I’ve done is good enough; I know I’ve trained harder than my opponents; I know what I have to do to win.”
It seems the preparation worked. Natalie (who turns 15 in June) won first-place for the third year in a row in the U16 division, and second-place in U21; Martin (age 18) took first-place for the second year in U21, and first-place in the Seniors division.
“The first day I had three fights, and four fights the second day, and I had three or four really tough fights [overall],” said Martin. “There are a few of them who don’t train as hard.”
Added Natalie, “In the U16 division, there was one fight that was tougher, but the rest of them, they’re not really at the same level as I am, I guess. In the U21, the first fight was easy, but the semi-final and final were more difficult.”
Lest this sound like boasting, the Rygielskis do not let themselves off easy. “I won my senior category, but I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. I kind of feel like I didn’t win easily enough – they had enough of a chance over me,” said Martin.
It’s that kind of standard that separates Bruce Lee from the henchmen that Bruce Lee beat up, and that has prevailed for the Rygielskis since they took up judo nine years ago. “My brother played hockey and tried other sports, and it wasn’t working out as well as we would have liked,” remembers Martin. “My mom said, ‘Oh, you should try judo,’ and ever since then we’ve loved it.”
“I put them on it, because I did karate before and I was badly hurt,” says mother Eva Rygielski. “It’s throwing, but not punching. I actually didn’t expect judo would be so hard – I thought it would be more delicate than karate – and no, it’s not!”
The Rygielskis are enjoying a few days of rest before it’s back to the mat. Natalie, who has her brown belt, will be aiming for the next level (a black belt is typically awarded after age 16, but she hopes to earn it earlier), and will take part in the summer games in August. Martin will be training for a European tour this summer, and the Commonwealth games in Scotland. “We have a week’s break before we start training again, but at Nationals, I just get really motivated to want to train even harder,” said Natalie.
When asked for advice for the aspiring champion, Martin offered: “Don’t hold back, because when you hold back, there are opportunities for your opponent to do something. If you just go in there, fight the match like it’s yours, and don’t hold back, you can do really well.”