Nico Kanning: The sparring partner helping Teddy Riner get better

The German from Berlin has worked with the judo Olympic champion full-time since 2014.

How does a judo multiple Olympic and world champion such as Teddy Riner get better?

Behind every star is a team of unsung heroes, and in the case of the French judoka it includes his full-time sparring partner, Nico Kanning.

The 36-year-old from Berlin travels with Riner and practices with him in Paris, at training camps, and at competitions and tournaments.

"We see each other more often than our families," Kanning told Maarkische Allgemeine Zeitung.

Rugby distraction

Kanning had called it quits on his top-level judo career in 2009 aged 25, deciding he wanted to move to Paris to join his girlfriend Lucie Louette, herself a French national champion who would go on to win European gold in 2013.

He ended up practising the sport just once or twice a week in his new city while playing semi-professional rugby as a prop. He won two Test match caps for Germany in 2010 and 2011 and it seemed like he had left his old life in judo behind.

But Riner, by then already a four-time world champion, needed someone to spar with. "He had no partner in randori," Kanning recalled, using the term for freestyle sparring under competition conditions. “I was only there to fall down but that was a unique opportunity that I could not turn down," Kanning said.

At first, the pair did these technical sessions twice a week, but "it worked out so well that he wanted to have me around permanently", and Kanning joined team Riner on a full-time basis in 2014.

These randori sessions see Kanning, who weighs around 120 kg, thrown by Riner to the mat up to 70 times in each session. And things get competitive. "It doesn't matter whether it's (the card game) Uno, football, or guessing songs. He's extremely ambitious and always wants to win."

Defeat taken personally

Riner, who won Olympic gold at London 2012 and Rio 2016, is aiming to become the first judoka to win three heavyweight Olympic tournaments in a row.

However, a long undefeated run was broken in February when the Frenchman was finally defeated after 154 straight wins lasting ten years. It was a result that left Kanning questioning himself, too.

"I asked myself if I had done everything right in the preparation, if I was fit enough. My competition is the training session, so to speak. If I am not fit enough, I can’t keep up with Teddy and I can’t help him.”

To that end, Kanning also scouts Riner's opponents to imitate them during training and sparring sessions, going as far as to switch his handedness in training and even letting the star throw him down.

"I do it, in such a way that he doesn't notice, so he can gain self-confidence. If that then pays off in competition, even better."

The sport will be in Kanning's future, as the German has set up a judo club in Paris. He intends to become a coach.

"I know Teddy's routine inside out. It's incredible what I have learned from him over the years."

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