Rio de Janeiro — 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.
Also read: Ghana's first Olympic swimmers are a warning to the world
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."For
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