The trio of Tuks judoka on duty at the African Open in Yaounde, Cameroon all earned medals.
Pick of the bunch was 2014 Commonwealth Games team member DJ le Grange who won gold in the -66kg division while Michaela Whitebooi and 2014 Youth Olympian Unelle Snyman both won silver medals in the -48kg and -78kg weight divisions respectively.
Le Grange (pictured second from left, above) won all four his fights with judo’s most decisive and maximum winning score, the ippon.
There was no small amount for drama for Le Grange, a man that national coach Nikola Filipov describes as a ‘born fighter’.
In his second fight, he pinned down the host nation’s Etoga Nama with an arm-lock. Usually, a judoka on the receiving end will indicate that he concedes victory by tapping on but Nama refused to do so.
Le Grange was then forced to push the issue further and unfortunately broke Nama’s arm. ‘The moment it happened I felt terrible. It was not how I wanted to win. I sincerely apologised to Nama afterwards,’ said Nama.
In the semi-finals, Le Grange beat Luxembourg’s Tom Schmit which meant that the under-66kg final was an all-South African affair with Le Grange getting to fight his compatriot, and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Siyabulela Mubulu.
Le Grange says that if memory serves him correctly it’s the first time that two South Africans have contested a final at an international tournament.
‘It was a good fight because Siyabulela and I know each other’s fighting styles. That made it challenging to outwit him.’
The Tuks Judoka was full of praise for the role his coach Filipov played in helping him to win the gold medal. ‘Nikola is undoubtedly one of the most passionate and dedicated coaches. Before our fights he was up until the early hours of the morning gathering information on the internet on what our rivals’ strong and weak points are. That enabled him to advise us during crucial moments to do the right thing.
‘For the past few weeks, I had been training in the USA. I got some invaluable tips from the Jimmy Pedro, a USA Olympic judo coach. He especially helped me to improve my technique on the mat. Travis Stevens who won a silver medal at last year’s Olympic Games in Rio enabled me to be tactically more astute. I am grateful to both of them.’
Le Grange is just as excited about Whitebooi’s performance. ‘I think at long last she made that breakthrough we all knew she was capable of doing. In the past, one of her most significant problems was that she did not believe in her abilities when competing internationally. She often lost before she had even stepped onto the mat.
‘This time was different she was cool and calculated from her first fight. In her first fight, she beat Aziza Chakir (Morrocco) who won a bronze medal at the recent African Championships. With a bit of luck, she could even have won the final. But for now, it was just exciting to see her truly contest the final.’
Argentine’s Keisy Perafan won the under-48kg final.
Meanwhile,Snyman (pictured right) had mixed feelings about her performance in losing to Argentine’s Lucia Cantero.
‘To win a medal at my first senior international tournament has been amazing but at the same time, I’m disappointed. I know I could have won if I had kept my cool right up to the end.
‘I was ahead on points with about 30 or so seconds to go. Unfortunately, I got slightly over-eager wanting to increase my lead and scoring some more points.
‘That cost me the fight. There were some questions afterwards about a decision the referee had made, but I don’t want to go into it. What happened, happened. The important thing is that I have gained some valuable international ranking points.’