EXCLUSIVE - Daria Bilodid: "At the Olympic Games, I will be my main rival"

The two-time world champion reveals why she cried after the Tokyo 2020 postponement and explains why the Games have always been her childhood dream.

By Ekaterina Kuznetsova and Alessandro Poggi

The 'Queen of Judo' is ready to come back.

While competitions are still suspended around the world due to the pandemic, Daria Bilodid could at least step in on the tatami of her gym in Kiev as her training has finally resumed.

Ukraine's two-time world champion is already a face of her sport and is expected to be one of the global stars of the next Olympic Games.

"Thank God I finally have the opportunity to train fully," Bilodid told the Olympic Channel during an exclusive video interview from her home.

2020 was supposed to be the year of her worldwide breakthrough, but the Tokyo Games' postponement means she will have to wait for her shot at Olympic glory.

She recalls, "When I found out, for me it was a big disappointment, a couple of hours I was sobbing and just crying.

"It was very hard for me to come to terms with it. But as a couple of days passed and I've had a couple of days to rethink and understand - then I have got another year to prepare better."

The 19-year-old also spoke at length about her desire to win, her journalism ambitions and how different she feels off the mat.

Olympic Channel: How did you manage to keep fit during the confinement?

Daria Bilodid: When the quarantine began it was at the end of March and, of course, I trained for some time at home.

I was limited in terms of training opportunities, but the most important thing is the desire, the desire to train, it doesn't matter where.

If you don't have a chance to train in the gym or in judogi (judo uniform), you can find a bunch of home exercises. You can come up with anything - you can do bar exercise on chairs, you can do push-ups or squats...The main thing is the will to do them and not to feel lazy. To keep fit I think these exercises will be enough for some period of time. So the most important thing is a strong desire. I think in most of the sports it was possible to do some training. Still, it's not a year, it's not two years, it's just a couple of months.

OC: The Tokyo Olympic Games have been postponed for a year: how has it affected you?

DB: Actually, when I found out this unpleasant news I got really upset: I couldn't believe it and I didn't want to believe it.

For me it was a shock because I've been waiting for this year so much, since I was a kid. I kept a picture in my head: 'Year 2020, 2020. The Olympic Games.' And when I found out, for me it was a big disappointment and for a couple of hours I was sobbing and just crying. It was very hard for me to come to terms with it.

Then I had a couple of days to rethink and understand that I have got another year to prepare better. Then I will do everything that is possible to win next year. Now I try now not to think too much about it and I'll continue to work towards my goal.

"If someone is strong, it doesn't matter if it's this year or next year, they would win anyway. There is no difference." - Daria Bilodid

OC: What do the Olympics mean to you?

DB: I think all athletes understand that the Olympic Games are the coolest competition in any sport at professional level.

All the athletes dream of a gold medal at this event because it takes place once every four years. And these competitions are really some sort of a special event where all sports are gathered together, it's not just one type of sport.

OC: Who do you think will be your main opponent in Tokyo next year?

DB: At the Olympic Games, I will be my main rival. I'm sure that, of course, it will be hard from an emotional point of view.

So if I cope with my emotions, with my excitement, I think I can beat any opponent. The main thing for me would be to have a cold head. I hope to be calm and to fight at the Olympic Games like in every other other competition. It doesn't have to be anything different from another event.

OC: You are twice European champion, twice world champion. Does it ever become boring to win at this point?

DB: I love winning too much so I think I'll never get bored. For me, winning is such a crazy, positive emotion. It's an unusual feeling when you realise that there's a meaning in your work, in all your hard training.

And when you step on the podium and get a medal... This sense of pride, pride for your hard work, pride for you country, these are some crazy emotions.

I wish to every athlete to feel them as often as possible.

"Since I was 10 years old, I always imagined that I would be standing on the podium with an Olympic medal. It's my childhood dream." - Daria Bilodid

OC: What attracts you most about judo? Why is your sport so special?

DB: I consider judo one of the most beautiful types of sports probably. It is very interesting and fascinating to watch it, to watch the competition. It is very technical, full of amplitude. I don't know - but I like judo for absolutely everything (laughs).

OC: What do you find difficult in your sport?

DB: The most difficult thing is the regime, the injuries.

It's the intense workouts that last in my case five hours a day. I don't know, it's really a lot of things, all this process - it is very difficult but the main thing through all this complexity is to be able to enjoy this whole process, which I basically do. I am very happy and glad that my life happened this way and is connected with judo.

OC: On the tatami you always look very concentrated and ready to fight. What goes through your mind during these moments?

DB: I think that I am very determined to win and all my thoughts are only aimed at not thinking about anything, to concentrate only on the upcoming fight. How to beat a rival, how can I win over her.

"I'm not a person who gives up. Of course there are difficult moments, but there's a reason why you make sacrifices. If I didn't limit myself in certain things, if I didn't train so much, I wouldn't have achieved anything." - Daria Bilodid

Daria Bilodid poses with some fans during the World Championships in Tokyo.

OC: How different is the person that you are in judo to the one in the real life?

DB: Probably there is a difference. In judo, during training and competitions, I am very concentrated. During training, I can't even be distracted by anything.

I am often asked: 'Why do you almost not communicate with anyone in the gym?' and I say: 'Because I'm busy and I can't be distracted, I'm like a robot of some kind focused on one thing. And that's it, I don't see anything else, only my purpose. And nothing else.

As for my life...the majority of my life is connected, to judo. But sometimes I can forget about judo and be more feminine, a little bit of a different person, not so concentrated.

OC: In judo, on the tatami, you seem very aggressive, while in life you are smiling and friendly. Have people told you about such dissonance?

DB: Well, of course, people say that, especially after looking at my photos. In the pictures you wouldn't say that I look like a sportswoman, like a judoka. And when they watch the videos from my fights they're just shocked and they wonder how it's even possible.

Well, honestly I think this [aggressive] view is also present in my life. In life I can also be aggressive and with the same look as in competitions.

OC: What do you think of prejudices towards women in combat sports?

DB: I've never tried to fight stereotypes. I just know for myself that, if I'm doing judo, it doesn't mean that it's only a male sport. And I don't think I'm supposed to look like a man or something.

I know very well that outside of judo I can be girly and feminine. Many people think that if a girl is doing judo, she should be super muscled, with a not good-looking figure. It's not true.

People should understand that it's absolutely normal when a woman or a girl is practising judo. I think it's only a plus for her figure, for her development but also for everything.

OC: How has judo helped shape your character?

DB: My character was developed through judo. I acquired many qualities from judo and they really help me in life, to have a strong personality not only in sports but also in life. Strong, unstoppable, but also concentrated on my craft.

"I can be calm, very kind, but, depending on the situation, I can get very angry and also be aggressive. I can go from a nice sweet girl to aggressive." - Daria Bilodid

Daria Bilodid confronts Koga Wakana in the final of the Paris Grand Slam in February 2020

OC: In March, you announced the release of a documentary about your life with the title 'Anaconda': what should we expect from it?

DB: It hasn't gone out yet because of the lockdown in Ukraine and cinemas are still closed. This movie conveys the real me. Not the beautiful pictures that people see on Instagram and on social networks: there it looks like everything is perfect and all is good. I win, being a smiley girl and everything is perfect.

This movie conveys my emotions during my workouts, the difficulties that I have to face in my life in order to achieve any success. This film is not very long but in general, it reveals my identity well.

OC: You are really popular on social media: how do you react when you find some negative comments?

DB: Actually I'm not the kind of person who reacts to the negative.

It often happens that acquaintances tell you: 'Did you see, someone wrote you something bad. Maybe you should react or respond.'

I don't want to answer anything because I don't even want to let this whole negativity close to myself. And if I read such comments, I just scroll through and start reading positive comments. I don't pay attention to this. Moreover, thank God there are more positive comments and very few negative ones. And in general, it doesn't cling to me in any way.

OC: How do you deal with your fame in Ukraine? How many times have you been asked for an autograph?

DB: Most often in Ukraine, it is not an autograph: people ask to take a photo or usually congratulate me on my victories, they wish me luck.

Well, over the last year people, of course, started recognising me: on the streets, in shops, at gas stations. It happens quite often.

OC: What about abroad? Have you been stopped on the street?

DB: If I just came as a tourist and walk around the city, probably not. I am recognised rather at competitions after I performed and I go to stands and there are many judo fans and, of course, they come in crowds to take autographs and photos together.

OC: You are still very young, but have you already thought what will happen after judo?

DB: At the moment all my dreams are related to judo.

I don't want to look to far ahead and I don't know what will happen after my sporting career. But I see myself as a sports journalist, probably even covering judo. This would be interesting to me as I would like to stay in my favourite sport, but with a different role.

A cardboard cutout of Daria in the mixed zone at the 2019 World Championships.


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