Cuba’s judo star Idalis Ortiz, who has ‘always had to spar with men’ out for gold again in Rio

Idalis Ortiz, a top Cuban judoka who built her skills by training with men, is headed to the 2016 Rio Olympics with her her sights set on reclaiming gold.

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Top Cuban judoka Idalis Ortiz forged her exceptional endurance and techniques by training with men – a regimen that helped her break through in Beijing and claim Olympic gold in London.

Now, she is setting her sights on a golden repeat in Rio next month.

Born in the little village of Candelaria, about 80 kilometres outside of Havana, the smiling Ortiz learned to fall – and always to get back up – opposite male sparing partners.

They were the only ones who could cope with the extraordinary physique of the 26-year-old woman, who stands 5ft 8in (1.73 metres) and weighs 115 kilos (250 pounds).

The method paid off as, at just 18 years old, Ortiz claimed the bronze in Beijing – the youngest medallist in the heavyweight category.

Four years later, she broke the Chinese and Japanese chokehold on the sport in London with her victory.

By stealing the spotlight from the favourites, China’s Tong Wen and Japan’s Mika Sugimoto, Ortiz became the first judoka born outside Asia to dominate in the category at the Olympics, which first held women’s judo competitions in 1992.

In Rio, things will be different, she said, because the field is more even.

“Whoever my opponent may be, it will be difficult,” Ortiz predicted in an interview with AFP at the Cerro Pelado training centre south of Havana.

The hopes of an entire nation rest on Ortiz, the most prominent competitor in a sport that brought 35 Olympic medals to the Caribbean island from 1964-2012.

To reach the top of the podium in Rio next month, Ortiz will likely have to get past world No 1 Song Yu of China and Brazil’s Maria Altheman, Ortiz’s long-suffering foil who will likely be thirsty for revenge on home turf.

The Cuban, who often has highlights in her hair, told AFP she is still eager to win titles even after taking home some 200 medals over the course of her career, including five from world championships – two gold and three bronze.

After Rio, Ortiz – a fan of Mexican movies and Brazilian telenovelas that “make you cry” – says she wants to live out another dream.

“I want to take a break to start a family but I have no intention of giving up judo,” she said of her 12-year relationship with a Cuban former weightlifter.

For the time being, Ortiz is training hard, seven hours a day – and, as she did at the start of her career, with men.

“I’ve always been fairly big, and there weren’t any girls to take me on. I’ve always had to spar with men in training,” she said.

“You can’t imagine how many times they took me down but losing made me stronger mentally,” she added.

Driulis Gonzalez, a Cuban female judo star who trains the national team, is full of praise for Ortiz.

“Since she joined the national team, she’s shown maturity, character and self-sacrifice. This, along with her discipline and talent, give her a winning mindset,” she said.

Ortiz’s love affair with judo began at an early age. But everything changed when she was 14 – the moment when she arrived at the elite national training centre in Havana.

When she showed up for tryouts, Ortiz says that her sister was bowled over by the size of her adversaries and asked her if she truly wanted to stay.

“I told her, ‘So long as I’m here, I’ll keep going! ... And after the bouts, the teacher said, ‘The little one stays here’.”

And for 12 years since that time, the champion has only ever gone home to visit.

During major international events, Ortiz’s entire family is overcome with nerves but cannot travel with her due to the cost.

“My parents have never had the courage to watch me spar in person. My brothers have watched but not my parents,” the champion says with a smile before heading back to the tatami mat.

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