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Pekli's life in judo far from over

4 September 2015

JUDO: Ask Maria Pekli if she foresees a day when she no longer has anything to do with judo, and she laughs.

“Maybe when I’m under the ground, pushing up daisies,” the 43-year-old Olympic bronze medallist said.

Pekli and judo have been intertwined for decades; for almost as long as she can remember.

There can be no doubt judo, especially in her adopted country of Australia, has blossomed because of Pekli’s devotion.

There’s been space put aside at the International Judo Federation’s Hall of Fame for Maria Pekli for a long time, and last week at the World Championships in Kazakhstan it was finally filled.

“I was surprised because they have a lot of champions that have won a lot of things,” Pekil said.

“But even though I haven’t won a lot of things, I have been in the sport for a very long time. I went to five Olympic Games, and in judo I think there are only four people who have done that.

“And I have an Olympic medal, and a European Championship medal, and a Commonwealth Games medal. Plus I’m still involved in judo.

“It is great recognition for me, but it is also great recognition for our Federation and everyone else in Australia.”

It’s a solid CV, but it tells only part of the story. It hasn’t just been about the glory of competing at five Olympics – two for Hungary, and three for Australia – but also building a base for future Olympians, especially in a country where judo’s foundations don’t run deep.

“I didn’t do judo for this award, but it’s very nice to be recognised for what you’ve done for a very long time,” she said.

“Yes, I have given the sport a lot, but the sport has given me a lot as well. I love judo.

“When I was still competing my partner, Daniel, was coaching people so it was a natural progression that I would stay in the sport.”

Pekli and her husband, four-time Australian Olympian Daniel Kelly, currently coach about 100 children in Victoria, including their 10 and six year old sons.

It’s a great thrill for Pekli that her children love judo. But it’s also a story tinged with heartbreak.

Pekli and Kelly’s oldest son, Erik, has an extremely rare genetic disease that will place enormous strain on his organs for the rest of his life.

“Both our children love judo. We didn’t force them, we told them they could do whatever they wanted to do, but they just love the sport,” Pekli said.

“Obviously with Daniel going to four Olympics and me going to five, it’s pretty hard for them to avoid it. Plus our house is full of medals and trophies. It would have been really difficult for them.”

Pekli took the opportunity while in Astana last week to cast her learned eye over the Australian team. And while the results weren’t what the team had hoped for, Pekli has high hopes for the future.

“Technically I don’t think we are behind, it’s the experience,” she said.

“We are so far from the rest of the world, we have to go so far. We have to travel 30 hours to get to events, whereas in Europe they jump in a car and drive for three hours.

“So our athletes just don’t get that experience in a competition setting. We are working on it, trying to get them to these sort of events.”

And as for next year? Pekli has no doubts Australia will have a strong team in Rio for the Olympics. And she should know.

“We will have athletes in Rio for sure,” she said.

“At the moment it’s looking shaky, but that’s because we haven’t had the Continental championships yet.

“Most of our athletes will win the Continental Championships, so I’m predicting we will have between five and seven athletes in Rio.”

And returning to the question of how much longer Pekli will devote to the sport.

Given how excited she still gets watching competition, it’s going to be a long time.

“I get frustrated sometimes when I go to competition and watch, and I think I know what should be happening on the mat, and it’s not happening,” she laughed.

“I want to jump on the mat – I have to realise I’m 43 and my body couldn’t really do that anymore.”

Ross Solly 
Australian Judo

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