The World Judo Championships ended Wednesday, but many in the sport are still buzzing about a redemption tale.
Brazilian judoka Rafaela Silva, working her way back after a two-year suspension for doping, won her first world title in nine years. A textbook waza-hiri executed against three-time world junior’s champion Haruka Funakubo of Japan with 35 seconds left in the 57kg class final was the difference.
“After all these years I got it back,” Silva said after the match. “I couldn’t be at the Olympic games so this win gives me confidence to be in Paris in 2024.”
A doping suspension after winning at the Pan American Games in 2019 kept Silva out of the Tokyo Games. The substance in question was for fenoterol, an asthma medication. Silva said her exposure to the drug came via frequent contact with a friend’s baby who is asthmatic. She appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which upheld the suspension in December 2020.
The suspension denied Silva the opportunity to defend the Olympic championship she earned in her hometown at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She contemplated leaving the sport to pursue a career in mixed martial arts.
Amid the appeals, the suspension, and through the COVID crisis, Silva, who came out publicly as a lesbian after her gold medal performance in Rio in 2016, found support and strength in her growing relationship with fellow judoka Eleudis Valentim. They started dating six months prior to her suspension in 2019 before marrying in October 2020.
Heading into the world championships, few observers saw Silva as a gold medal contender. In response, the world and olympic champion put up four impressive victories to earn the chance against Funakubo.
The emerging talent from Japan was aggressive throughout the final match and at one point came within a whisker of scoring the first points. With 90 seconds left in regulation, Funakubo had Silva locked in an Osaekomi. If she held the pin for 10 seconds or more, Funakubo would score. Silva broke free at nine seconds and regained to control of the match to set up the winning move less than one minute later.
At the end of the match, Silva raced to her coach Andrea Berti, and they met in an embrace that was a mix of smiles and tears. It was a fitting release after two years with no competition, and nearly a decade since a world championship win.
The emotion was mirrored thousands of miles away with a happy spouse watching in Brazil.
“Thank you for not giving up, and I don’t get tired of saying how much I admire you,” Valentim said, via Instagram. “I’ll be here always by your side in suffering and joy regardless of the moment we’re living.”
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