Majlinda Kelmendi leads Kosovo to more success after injury

Rio 2016 gold medallist Kelmendi and team-mate Distria Krasniqi claimed victory at the Tashkent Grand Prix.

Inspired by Majlinda Kelmendi, Kosovo is fast becoming a judo powerhouse..

The reigning 52kg Olympic champion was one of three Kosovan women to reach their finals on day one of the Tashkent Grand Prix in Uzbekistan.

Nora Gjakova had to settle for second place but Kelmendi and 22-year-old Distria Krasniqi delivered to make it two wins for Kosovo.

A perfectly executed throw for ippon on Swiss judoka Evelyne Tschopp secured Kelmendi her first World Tour title since February 2017.

Kelmendi leads Kosovans in Tashkent

Kelmendi leads Kosovans in Tashkent

Kelmendi, 27, made her competitive return at Abu Dhabi two weeks previously.

She reached the final but a facial injury prematurely ended her rematch with Italy's Rio 2016 silver medallist Odette Giuffrida.

Judo and Kosovo: the perfect match

After unilaterally declaring its independence in 2008, Kosovo made its Olympic debut at Rio 2016.

Despite a lack of finances and resources making international competition difficult, the nation of just 1.8 million people performs well above expectations.

Kelmendi's gold was their only medal in Rio, with judo quickly rising in popularity as a result.

"People, especially kids in Kosovo, look at me as a hero." - Kelmendi after her Rio 2016 title

Peja: the hub of Kosovan judo

Kelmendi carried Kosovo's flag at the opening ceremony and her victory became an inspiration for an entire nation.

"I've just proved to them that even after we have survived the war, if they want something they can have it. If they want to be Olympic champions they can be."

While supporting team-mates at June's Mediterranean Games in Tarragona during her recovery from surgery, Kelmendi told Spanish news agency EFE, "In judo, it's easier to find an Olympic champion in Japan, France, or even in Spain.

"But come to Kosovo and see how we train. We have nothing. No physio, no doctor, nothing."

Before Kosovo was recognised by the IOC, Kelmendi represented Albania at London 2012 where she went out in the second round.

In 2013, she became world champion for the first time in Rio where she would enjoy her greatest triumph three years later.

Kelmendi has blazed a trail for judokas from Peja with Olympian Nora Gjakova becoming European champion this year in Tel Aviv.

Gjakova's younger brother Akil became the first Kosovan man to win a Grand Prix medal before taking the Paris Grand Slam in February.

Kelmendi's fellow Tashkent victor Krasniqi was world junior champion in 2015.

Kosovo's coaching pioneer

The driving force behind this success is Driton Toni Kuka.

Driton Kuka holds Majlinda Kelmendi's gold medal as he takes a selfie with the Kosovan flag at Rio 2016
Driton Kuka holds Majlinda Kelmendi's gold medal as he takes a selfie with the Kosovan flag at Rio 2016Driton Kuka holds Majlinda Kelmendi's gold medal as he takes a selfie with the Kosovan flag at Rio 2016

After a promising junior career was cut short by the war in the Balkans, Kuka has worked tirelessly to lift the sport to where it is now.

He discovered Kelmendi as a youngster in Peja, Kosovo's third city, and was determined to make her Kosovo's first Olympic champion.

Kelmendi said of Kuka, "For me, he's one of the three best trainers in the world. We're lucky to have him.

"He is our manager, our coach, our friend, our physiotherapist, our doctor... he is everything." - Majlinda Kelmendi on coach Driton Kuka

Majlinda Kelmendi and coach Driton Kuka acknowledge the crowd at Rio 2016
Majlinda Kelmendi and coach Driton Kuka acknowledge the crowd at Rio 2016Majlinda Kelmendi and coach Driton Kuka acknowledge the crowd at Rio 2016

Kuka's setup is simple with his athletes all hailing from Peja.

His niece, Loriana Kuka, is another talent to emerge this year having won the Antalya Grand Prix and the European U23 title earlier this month.

The squad is practically a family, living close to one another and training and eating together as they work towards making Kosovo one of judo's strongest nations.

Tokyo 2020

Kelmendi's return to the tatami is perfectly timed as tournaments begin to take on the extra significance of Olympic qualification.

She and Kuka have helped show an assertive new Kosovo to the world and, as Kelmendi told EFE, "Football may be the number one sport for popularity, but judo is the one that gives more success to our country."

With rising stars following her lead, Tokyo 2020 could become the stage for another powerful expression of Kosovan pride.

While her team-mates will be seeking new career highlights, everything for Kelmendi is a bonus after her emotional triumph in Brazil.

"It was the happiest day of my life. Nothing can compare to Rio. That will be part of my history and that of my country forever."

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