When Hungarian native Szandra Szogedi steps onto the judo mat at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, she’ll be making history as the first-ever female judoka to represent Ghana.
Born in Budapest, Szogedi started judo at age 11, after a friend of her father’s recommended the sport. With a background in gymnastics, Szogedi adapted quickly to the dynamic flips and groundwork characteristic of the Japanese martial art.
After just six months, Szogedi won a silver medal at Hungary’s national championships.
“I was hooked,” she told the Associated Press in a recent interview. “I loved winning medals and started to think this might be the sport for me.” Szogedi began attending a specialized sports school and qualified for the national judo squad.
But after her parents divorced in 2007, money was tight and Szogedi was forced to drop judo. She moved to the U.K. shortly afterwards and began working as a waitress in a London hotel. One afternoon, as she watched the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics with friends at a pub, she saw one of her former Hungarian judo teammates walk into the Bird’s Nest stadium.
“I had the feeling that I had some unfinished business,” Szogedi said. She soon started training again at a London judo club, where she met her future husband, a Ghana-born engineer.
After securing her Ghanaian passport through him, Szogedi began competing for the West African country at major judo tournaments and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. Szogedi has been to Ghana once to meet her husband’s family and says she was overwhelmed by the welcome she received.
“The people are so lovely and so kind that it doesn’t feel weird to me to be representing Ghana. I feel very proud to be able to fight for them,” she said, recalling when she won a bronze medal at the African Championships last September. “I was on the bus when some random Ghanaian athletes came on, saw my medal and just started singing and dancing,” she said. “That would never happen in Europe.”
Szogedi is now based in Camberley, 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of London, where she trains alongside several members of Britain’s national team. In preparation for Rio, Szogedi is working to sharpen her fight strategy and in particular, is working on being more aggressive in controlling her matches by getting a dominant grip on her opponents’ uniforms.
Although she is among the shorter competitors in her 63-kilogram weight division, her coach says that could work to her advantage.
“She has a great ability to get underneath other players and score some big throws,” said Luke Preston, Szogedi’s coach at the Camberley judo club and also a national coach for the British team.
Though Szogedi is ranked 40th in the world, Preston said that matters little in the combat sport.
“The beauty of judo is that world champions can get knocked out in the first round,” he said. “It just takes somebody to step up and seize the moment. There’s no reason that can’t be Szandra.”