Geronay Whitebooi’s and by Charne Griesel know a few things about crossing barriers.
South Africans’ own encounters with judo have sent them down an unexpected path of discovery, whether it’s dealing with anxiety or coping with the untold hardships that many in the country face.
Olympian and Commonwealth Games Gold Medalist Geronay Whitebooi originally hoped to use judo to support her family when she was awarded a scholarship to the University of Pretoria. The financial management graduate has since expanded her network of influence, hoping to inspire the next generation of judokas.
“I get this question a lot, and it’s even something I think about sometimes. Why do I keep doing this? I put myself in so much pain, so much pressure and so much anxiety,” Whitebooi said. .
“It’s almost like I want to break the barriers of the sport in South Africa, and I want to show that we can do it or I can do it. And if I can break that pattern, then there’s a way the other players, the young players, to do it too.”
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Geronay Whitebooi: Making Sacrifices
Whitebooi, 26, has already left an indelible mark on the sport, becoming only the third female judoka to represent South Africa at the Olympic Games. Whitebooi was the first woman in nearly 20 years to step onto the tatami at the Games when she made her Tokyo 2020 debut.
Reaching the Games was the culmination of years of blood, sweat and tears after leaving his single mother and siblings for TuksSport High School in Pretoria at the age of 14.
“I think my mom decided to enroll me in the program because she knew that with my dad passing, she had to take care of the family,” Whitebooi said.
“So she had to make the sacrifice to fire me, even at this age where she didn’t want to let me go because I was young. But she made the sacrifice, and it made a big difference in my life.”
Seeking to reward his mother for her sacrifices, Whitebooi set out to excel in both her sport and her studies. Whitebooi undoubtedly achieved this by becoming a two-time African champion, Commonwealth Games gold medalist and making her Olympic debut.
Although she achieved almost everything she dreamed of as a young girl, Whitebooi was left with a sense of discontent after Tokyo. The global pandemic has tarnished the Olympics experience. Whitebooi recovered from COVID-19 while preparing for the showpiece, was eliminated in her first round and left Tokyo with only a small taste of competing at the Games and life in the village of athletes.
“It was after the Olympics that it marked me the most. I felt like I was not at the Olympics. And yes, you are an Olympian, but what do you get out of it? I came back, and I’m still the same life I had before the Olympics,” said Whitebooi.
“I still needed to train hard. I still needed to find funding. It’s great to be an Olympian, but there’s the stress and anxiety afterwards. Will I come back to qualify for Paris, spend another four years of my life training and give it to sport Or can I change careers, work for what I studied and earn more money than I can win by putting my body to the test?
Geronay Whitebooi: Taking care of your mental health
Whitebooi has since found answers to his questions and among those is to take better care of his mental health. And while Whitebooi has her sights set on Paris 2024, where she hopes to be among the medal contenders, she is also looking at life beyond the tatami.
“You need a variety of things to balance your life, to know that after sports you have opportunities open to you,” she said.
“During the Olympic cycle in Tokyo, I was going to see a psychologist, but I never made it a priority and I didn’t take care of my body. Now I talk to psychologists regularly because it’s exhausting. Training every day, you have the stress of being outside and other people, and you always have to focus because you have goals in mind.”
Whitebooi said she also doesn’t fully realize what her successes mean to aspiring young girls. Using her influence and experience, Whitebooi lent her support to teammate Griesel’s project to uplift marginalized youth through judo.
Charné Griesel: Using judo as a vehicle for change
The idea of using judo as a tool for empowerment came about when one of the judokas Charné Griesel coached highlighted the plight of young people who have fallen into substance addiction, dragging them even further into the trap of poverty. The judo player, a master’s student in occupational therapy, was researching drug addiction in two townships east of the South African capital.
“She said the most common cause for kids and teens who were so young and addicted to drugs was boredom,” Griesel said.
“We started brainstorming to introduce them to judo because the moral values you learn in judo can be passed on in everyday life.”
When 22-year-old Griesel launched her judo club in Eersterust earlier this year, nothing could prepare her for the despair that would greet her.
“Recently I had to pick up my two children from home to go to the South African Judo Championships. It was a big social shock as I come from a middle class background,” Griesel said.
“The only kid we got back lives on one of the notorious streets in Pretoria East, where you can buy any drug. It’s so tempting for them to choose that lifestyle.”
Charné Griesel: Armed with the values of judo
Armed with the eight values of judo – courage, respect, modesty, friendship, honor, honesty, self-control and courtesy – Griesel and other students began community involvement in June this year, working with 30 children aged seven at 18 years old.
Sketching a picture of the dire situation of many children, Griesel said many young people were in poor health due to their socio-economic conditions.
“I weighed my children when they recently went to the South African School Championships. And they were saying that in a good month their weight would be, for example, 48 kilograms, and in a bad month it would be of 44 kg.
“I had a hard time understanding that because I never heard of good months and bad months,” Griesel said.
“They explained that a good month is when they can put food on the table, and they have food every day. A bad month is when they can’t. And because it’s been so hot lately, it’s hard for them to hydrate, and they come to training with headaches, and they’re not that energetic.”
With limited resources as a student-run program, Griesel was able to provide children with judogis (uniforms) thanks to the wider judo community in the University of Pretoria and the Tshwane area.
In just four months, the program produced tangible and intangible results, with Griesel saying he noticed a marked improvement in the confidence of some players.
At the recent South African Schools Judo Championships, two of Eersterust’s players won titles in their age group and weight class.
“They came back with two gold medals, which is amazing considering we started four months ago, and now they are South African champions. I hope by doing this they will unite the community and make the community realize that their kids could do well in Maybe they would bring more kids to motivate and inspire more kids to do this instead of being on the street and all that.
Whitebooi and Griesel missed out on competition at the recent World Judo Championships and will now focus their attention on earning ranking points towards qualifying for Paris 2024. The South African duo will be in action at the Judo Grand Slam 2022 in Abu Dhabi which will be held from October 21 to 23.