Peter Paltchik: From night security guard to European judo champion

The 29-year-old Israeli faced tough challenges since he was born, but resiliency helped him overcome all the obstacles.
By Samuel Friedman and Alessandro Poggi

Peter Paltchik has been used to fighting since he was born.

The Israeli had multiple fractures when his mum gave birth to him 29 years ago. Judo has made him stronger, physically and mentally.

So when he had to face severe injuries and financial problems during his career, Paltchik had that resiliency that helped him overcome his struggles and bounce back.

"I had zero income, zero," the 2020 European champion said as he recalled the days following shoulder surgery in 2016, repairing a severe injury which forced him to miss the Rio Olympics.

The heavyweight judoka used to juggle part-time jobs and tough training sessions:

"I was doing a lot of stuff that I was not supposed to do. I was trying to get money from a lot of menial jobs," the 29-year-old told the Olympic Channel.

"I was even a security guard for a bar at nights. So in the morning I was training. In the afternoon, I was coaching kids. And in the evening, another training."

But that lifestyle wasn't ideal to prepare for the Games. His Olympic dreams were then shattered when a shoulder ligament was ripped apart during a fight against Mongolia's champion Naidan Tuvshinbayar at the China Grand Prix.

That was a turning point. Paltchik decided to completely change his approach: he left all the manual jobs and patiently worked on his recovery, spending hours doing physiotherapy and practising with his teammates.

"When I finished the season in 2017, I was already in the top ten in the world," he recalls.

"But I was not happy or satisfied with myself. I said, 'I'm going to be number one in the world'. And in 2020 it came."

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Olympic Channel (OC): You've been overcoming struggles since birth. Can you talk about that?

PP: I was born at 5.1 kg. It's very unusual for a baby to be born that size so usually when I tell the story, I say 'I was a baby that ate a baby'.

But because of my size, the birth was very, very hard, 53, 54 hours. My mum was in danger for her life. Meanwhile, all the doctors just gave up on me as I was not in the right position causing a lot of fractures with bones in the wrong places and physical trauma.

My grandfather, who I was named after, was very well-known in the town and was able to find a doctor that saved my life.

From day one, I was fighting for my life with lots of injections to my back, a lot of physiotherapy and a lot treatment in general.

When I was nine months old, I moved to Israel (from Crimea) with my mum, who was 24. It was my family's dream to immigrate to Israel - especially my mum and my grandfather, who would later join.

Paltchik celebrating his first birthday. (Credit: Peter Paltchik)

OC: Your grandfather played a big role in your life growing up. How was he involved in you discovering the sport of judo?

PP: When I was four years old he took me to my first lesson. It was important to him for me to build my muscles, physical strength, and develop a strong mentality. And of course this could be achieved in a physical sport like wrestling, judo, or some martial arts sports.

Thankfully we had a small judo club close to our home which he took me to and we both fell in love with at first sight. And throughout the years, he saw how much judo gave me - especially including the value of mutual respect.

From the very beginning when I was four years old, my grandfather was trying to train with me every day - one hour, one and a half hours. One of his two jobs was at an iron factory so he had a lot of tools to make me a small gym in our living room. I was his big project, you know?

Paltchik posing with Grandpa and his bronze medal at 2018 European Championsihps in Tel Aviv. (Credit: Peter Paltchik)

OC: From overcoming challenges at birth to developing a love for judo, when did you realise you had the right mentality and attitude to be successful in the sport?

PP: Near to the age of nine, 10. This is the age you start experience competition and understand that you are good, strong and capable of winning matches and medals.

You understand that you have some talent and people around you to push you, like my grandfather, my first coach and my family.

I started to love it, but I had a lot of losses, of course, like every kid. The people around me had the right attitude for those kind of moments, they always picked me up and helped me understand that losing can happen.

When you don't know how to lose, you will never know how to win. I always remember that sentence of my first coach and my grandfather.

Peter (in white) at competition during early years. (Credit: Peter Paltchik)

OC: You were working a lot of different jobs while trying to qualify for Rio. But since missing out on the Rio Olympics, you've had an incredible rise to number one in the world. What changed during that time for you to be where you are today?

PP: Missing out on qualifying for the Rio Games was one of the lowest points in my life.

In addition to training, I was doing a lot of stuff that I was not supposed to do such as trying to earn money from a lot of menial jobs. In the morning I was training, in the afternoon I was coaching kids and in the evening, another training. After that, I was going to the bar working (as security) until 4:00 a.m. then driving my car directly to the training centre. I was basically living in my car, sleeping there for two or three hours until sunrise.

I think nine months out was the Grand Prix of China. I was almost qualified and was so happy saying things like, 'I'm going to make it' as that was my goal, to participate in the Olympics. At the China Grand Prix, I fought with Olympic champion Naidan Tuvshinbayar from Mongolia, one of my idols, and we had a good fight until the moment he executed some very dangerous throw.

I had two options in my mind. Option one was to roll up and maybe lose the fight and the other one was to try and escape. So of course, I didn't surrender and I tried to escape. What happened is that my arm and my body separated from each other and I ripped my whole shoulder.

In the one month until my surgery, I had a lot of big questions around me. People were starting to push me and say: "What you need it for? Why are you doing this? Do you really love it?"

I started to question myself. But my greater curiosity for sport led me to lie down on the surgery table and let the doctors do the work. After the surgery, I didn't sleep for two days. I was in pain and could never find the right angle. On the third day, I was so tired, I passed out and I dreamed that I was standing on the podium on the Olympic Games. That night changed my life.

When I woke up, I knew that I needed that previous journey to end right now and start a new journey for myself. So I decided to leave everything. I had zero income but from that moment on, my approach was I had a one-million-dollar contract to change. Training was no longer training. It was my job.

OC: How have you been able to find motivation throughout 2020 and during COVID-19?

PP: I was already at my peak in the start of 2020. So when Covid-19 came, my coach Oren Smadja and I knew that we needed to relax a bit. We needed let that pressure, that tension, go.

I actually had an experience with the Ninja Warrior Israel, it's a crazy TV show that I didn't think I would ever do during my judo career, before the Olympics especially. But because of Covid, they gave me the opportunity which was quite a good thing for me because it's a kind of competition, and it was like my Olympics for that moment.

And I just let it go, all the pressure. We came down from that peak and now we're starting to build a new peak. We returned to the hard training.

With my good ranking, I don't need to do all the competitions so I can actual focus on my main goal, the Olympic Games.

Peter Paltchik working on mobility and balance during lockdown. (Credit: Peter Paltchik)

OC: You're officially the Champion of Europe. Can you talk about your road to that title in this unprecedented year?

PP: During COVID, the first lockdown and then the second lockdown, the whole world had a tough time. But I promised myself right when it all started that I will use the time Covid gives me to become better and stay in top shape.

So I started to work on my flexibility and then on my strength, and some other weak points of mine to recover from all my injuries. And I started to pay attention to all of those small details.

When the first tournament [Grand Slam Budapest 2020] arrived, I had a lot of confidence because I followed the plan but you don't always get what you want. I knew what my mistake were and what needed fixing so, together along with my coaches and team, we came better prepared to European Champs.

Peter Paltchik reacts to becoming European champion in the -100kg category at the European Judo Championships 2020 in Prague. (Credit: Peter Paltchik)

OC: Israeli Judo has a successful history at the Olympic Games. How are you looking to continue that success at Tokyo?

PP: I think the national sport of Israel is judo. Five of nine Olympic medals are from judo and there is a big depth in the history of judo in Israel.

This all started at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona when Oren Smadja and Yael Arad began building that bridge letting everyone understand that it can be done. You know, they had the first Olympic medals [of Israel]. So after them Ariel Zeevi, then Yarden Gerbi and Or Sasson.

We have a system that works very, very good. Everyone is very focused on what needs to be done. And it's a big system that is motivating everyone.

As for Tokyo, I think in my case, it's an advantage because I'm coming very, very ready. My physical and my mental game is ready. Everything is on the right path.

And I always talk about that Olympic Games with my friends Or Sasson and Sagi Muki who have already participated once. 'Ori' won a medal at Rio. I always talk about it and get their thoughts and understand their experience.

At the end of the day, it's the same mat and same kind of opponents and rivals like every competition.

OC: How does your friendship with your teammates motivate you to become better?

PP: The team is such good friends with each other. I see them more than I see my family. We talk about the Olympics because they have already been there, so I can learn about their experience from them.

We motivate each other in training, it's very important to have these kind of friends on your team, doing the same hard work as you do, and pushing each other. We're not satisfied with anything until we achieve our goal.

When we come back with the bronze medal or silver medal, we return right away to training until we get the gold.

In the competitions, the first days is the lightweight. Then it's the middleweight, the day of Sagi, and then it's the heavyweight. We are motivating each other to get better results every time. So on the first day when my friends get their results, the second day my friends are trying to get better, and then the third day it's my job.

OC: How excited are you to compete at home at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam? And what does it mean for you in the build up to Tokyo?

PP: I can say that last year [at Tel Aviv Grand Prix 2019] was a very big festival here with two gold medals - one for Or Sasson and one for me. We talked about Paris Grand Slam 2020 with people in the crowd; the Israeli crowd is not that big but it is a very, very strong crowd.

I felt like a gladiator in the Coliseum with fans shouting my name, motivating me and pushing me to bring my best on the mat. And it felt so good. We really had the best crowd in the world.

I'm looking forward to bring myself, as I know I can, to perform well and from now towards Tokyo. I'm really looking forward it; I'm very excited, actually.

Peter Paltchik engaging with the home crowd at the 2020 Tel Aviv Grand Prix. (Credit: Paco Lozano)