Win or lose, Michaela Whitebooi’s up for the Olympics fight

SA’s top-ranked judo practitioner prepares to take on world’s best at Tokyo Olympics

Michaela Whitebooi, who hails from Gqeberha, is Africa’s only qualified judo player in the women’s 48kg category in Japan.
LOVE OF THE GAME: Michaela Whitebooi, who hails from Gqeberha, is Africa’s only qualified judo player in the women’s 48kg category in Japan.
Image: TEAM SA

Gqeberha-born Michaela Whitebooi’s face lights up when she talks about fighting.

“Ooh, I love it! I love the training, putting the body through the extremes. Getting ready to fight.

“The body hurts, it really hurts. Judo’s a tough sport.

“And yes, I’ve often thought about how I would do in UFC. I love watching it. The violence, the pain.

“The thing is you have to inflict the pain, not be on the receiving end.”

Then she throws her head back and laughs. Her cherubic face belies the toughness that lies within.

She walks around in her sandals not even 1.60m tall and weighs 50kg, before sweating off the excess to get down to her division’s 48kg fighting weight.

She’s a black belt, “actually a first dan, but you can say black belt,” and is SA’s top-ranked judo practitioner, the only one competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“She’s also Africa’s only competitor in the women’s 48kg division.

Whitebooi will be one of the first Team SA Olympians to know her fate at these Games.

“Yes, by Saturday night my first Olympics will be over. The whole 48kg division is done and dusted in a day.”

In theory, her debut Olympics could be over in less than a minute, or it could extend into the next match, or two.

Any talk of winning a medal is just that, talk, but that doesn’t mean the 25-year-old is in Japan to make up the numbers.

Reality is reality though — she is ranked 41st in the world.

“Look, I will be very, very, very happy if she wins one fight and makes the last 16 here,” says her vastly experienced coach, former Bulgarian Olympian Nicola Filipov.

“And for her to win two fights would be the highlight of my career.”

He himself competed at the 1992 Barcelona Games before becoming national Bulgarian coach in 1995.

He arrived in SA in 2000 and has been in Pretoria for the past 17 years.

This will be Filipov’s fourth Olympics with Team SA, starting in Beijing 2008, while it’s his first with Whitebooi, who he has been coaching for 11 years.

Whitebooi hails from Gqeberha but now calls Pretoria home and is enrolled at Tuks.

She is used to pain and hardship and has spent more than half her life without a father.

It was her mom, Minnie, a domestic worker, who kept things together when they could so easily have fallen apart.

“My dad passed away some 14 years ago ... I don’t know the exact circumstances but it was something with his heart.

“My mom had to take on the role of both parents.

“It was a challenge for her and it still is. Though I live in Pretoria we are still very close.

“If it were not for judo, I would probably have dropped out of school as a lot of my friends did.

“Where I grew up gangsterism and drugs are rife.

“So who knows how my life would have played out. I love judo but with this love comes a great responsibility to work hard.

“For me, judo has always been a means to make something of my life, and through it I got the opportunity to study and get a degree.”

In 2018, Whitebooi obtained her BCom financial science degree and a year later she completed her honours in internal auditing.

Last year the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown stalled her studying but this year she enrolled for a one-year postgraduate course in entrepreneurship at Tuks.

Still, she’s happiest when she’s on the judo mat, whether it’s training or in competition combat itself.

Even though a fight is four minutes long — longer if scores are level and it goes to a Golden Score — Whitebooi says it feels a lot longer.

“The first two minutes are usually OK, but then it gets really tough.

“Those four minutes feel like 20; they’re painful and so sapping, and more anaerobic than aerobic.

“The lactic acid makes your muscles tense up as if in spasm.

“The cramps have to be attended to by muscle massaging and ice packs.”

What she doesn’t mention is that about 30 minutes later, her next fight will be called.

The cycle of pain starts again.

“You have to consider that Michaela is Africa’s only qualified judo player in the women’s 48kg category,” Filipov said.

“They get here (in Tokyo) with 32 players, having started with over 500 entrants in the qualification cycle following Rio 2016.

“The fact that she’s here, essentially the top 32 in the world, is an incredible achievement.

“And she’s still just 25. In three years time, at the Paris Games, she will be at her physical peak aged 28.

“I honestly expect her to win a medal at Paris 2024, 100% so.”


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