Menezes banking on another life-changing experience in Rio

Picture by 2012 Getty Images

After becoming the first Brazilian judoka to win an Olympic gold medal, in the 48kg category at London 2012, Sarah Menezes has stayed at the top of her sport and is now steeling herself to defend her title in Rio.

When I started doing judo, my parents told me it was a man’s sport,” said high-achieving Brazilian judoka Sarah Menezes. “All my life I’ve enjoyed facing challenges. The biggest problem was my studies, so I came to an agreement with them. If I was going to stay on the mat, I had to do well at school. When I started travelling to take part in competitions my parents realised that I had a talent.” 

Born on 26 March 1990 in Teresina, in northwestern Brazil, Menezes excelled at junior level and made her Olympic debut as an 18-year-old at Beijing 2008, where she lost to eventual bronze medallist Eva Csernoviczki of Hungary in the first round of the 48kg competition. 

Menezes banking on another life-changing experience in Rio

Continuing to compete in the lightest of the Olympic weight categories, the young Brazilian quickly rose to the top, winning back-to-back junior world titles in 2008 in Bangkok and 2009 in Paris. 

She also recorded several World Cup wins and starred in Grand Slam events on the IJF circuit and on the regional stage, lifting the Pan American Games title in San Salvador in 2010. So rapid was her ascent, in fact, that by the time she arrived in London for her second Olympics, she was ranked No2 in the world in her class. 

Menezes did not have things all her own way on the tatami at the ExCel, winning all her bouts from the first round through to the semi-finals by yuko, the smallest of advantages. Yet in shaking off Vietnam’s Van Ngoc Tu, France’s Laetitia Payet, China’s Wu Shugen and then Belgium’s Charline Van Snick to win through to the final, she made sure that she would be the first female Brazilian judoka to win either Olympic gold or silver.

A place in national history

The woman standing between her and the title was Romania’s defending Olympic champion and world No1 Alina Dumitru. Leading by a shido handed to the title holder after two minutes for non-aggression, Menezes extended her advantage with 54 seconds remaining, sending her opponent to the mat with a tomoe-nage to earn yuko. 

The outcome was still very much in the balance when, with just 12 seconds remaining, the Brazilian executed a perfect seoi-nage throw and pinned her opponent to the mat to secure a gold-medal-sealing a waza-ari half point. 

Brazil’s first ever women’s judo gold was celebrated in joyous fashion by the fans in the stands, Menezes’ coach Rosiceia Campos and the rest of the team’s delegation. It also marked a major turning point in the career and life of the young Brazilian, who became a national celebrity:

“2012 was a huge change in my life, as I was the first female judoka from Brazil to win an Olympic gold medal. I had victory parades and life in my hometown of Teresina just came to a standstill. I think I spent most of the next year giving interviews to media outlets from across the country.” 

She added: “Everything is great when you are an Olympic champion, and the experience was life-changing for me. I want to go through it all again.” 

Menezes banking on another life-changing experience in Rio

Since her London success, Menezes has continued to reign supreme at the Pan American Games, winning gold three times between 2013 and 2016, while claiming another title at the Military World Games and earning a string of Grand Slam victories. Currently ranked fourth in the world in her weight category, and having made sure of her place at Rio, she is now bracing herself for another memorable adventure.

“I have to take care of my body and watch my movements,” she said in early June. “There’s no other competition between now and the Games, which means I’m totally focused on Rio 2016

“I’m training every day, two sessions a day, and counting on the support of the Torcida (as the massed ranks of Brazil fans are known) when I finally step out to compete.”