Out of the ordinary is what best describes judoka Terry Riner due to his giant size and also through his awards. He won his first title as world champion when he was 17. He holds seven other world titles, Olympic titles, European titles, and of course, national titles. However, he is also known for his simplicity and his commitment to sharing his passion for judo with young people. He merged a family vacation in French Polynesia with encounters on the tatami mat.
Do you often meet young judokas?
Yes. This is the first time in French Polynesia, and I do it regularly in the Antilles, all over France and sometimes elsewhere abroad. I appreciate the exchanges with young people who dream of one day becoming a champion on a tatami. I am there to answer their questions, provide direction, perhaps also to correct technical faults or teach them technique. For me, it is especially the chance to let them know that anything is possible in life. As long as they believe in a project and don’t give up, they will go far.
What motivated you to come meet Polynesian judokas?
Just hearing the word Tahiti is motivation! Tahiti is not just any place. It is a word that creates dreamers. Anyway, when I told my friends I was l leaving for Tahiti, I would pronounce it “Taaahiiitiiii!” I didn’t have to think twice before giving my answer about coming here. It gave me a chance to discover a new country, a new culture and I am thrilled. My former sister-in-law is Tahitian. She often showed us photos and talked about Polynesian culture.
What were your first impressions as you got off the plane?
I loved the beautiful welcome at the airport. I already had an idea of what the local dances entailed. I saw very happy and welcoming people. I woke up very early the first day and saw the sun rise. I saw the ocean and took my first swim in the sea. It was awesome. The food here is great also!
Why do you plan on visiting several islands during your stay in French Polynesia?
I am an islander and I am very attached to Guadeloupe. I go home often to recharge my batteries. However, I am also curious about how things are on other islands, in particular Overseas Departments and Territories.
How about Polynesian judokas. Were you aware of their level?
No, I wasn’t because I have never sparred with a Polynesian. However, I do know that champions from several disciplines come from French Polynesia. I am thinking about Anne-Caroline Graffe in Taekwondo. Overseas offers numerous champions.
Which questions do you usually ask young people?
All kinds of questions. Sometimes they may not even make sense! Most of the time, I ask them what they think it takes to become a champion, to train, to have a healthy lifestyle. There is so much to learn. There are so many questions because young people are often trying to find themselves. At their age, I didn’t know if I wanted to become a champion. I started judo because someone suggested I do so, but it wasn’t until much later when I was 17 that I truly told myself that I could do something great.
Do you sometimes sense the beginning of a champion?
You can tell who is promising among the girls and boys. Afterwards, a world-class level sports career is never set in stone. You can get injured or burn out. When you are an adolescent, nothing is set.
As a child did you get a chance to meet your heroes?
Yes, I did have the chance. I was in the same judo club as David Douillet, Djamel Bourras and Fréderic Demontfaucon. I saw them all the time and at the end of the season, it is they who awarded us our belts to pass onto the next level.
Is it difficult for people from overseas to make it in high level sports?
Yes, it is more difficult in any sport. What is difficult is to leave your family and your beautiful environment with the sea and the sun. It provides a cocoon, a comfort zone. You have to totally shift what you are used to and learn to immerse yourself into another culture. It is very hard.
What is the state of mind of a champion such as yourself? There seems to be a combination of power and simplicity?
As soon as I reached 13 years old, I was sent to be with a team much older than I was in order for me to evolve as an athlete. There was no more Mom and Dad. Plus, in order to keep a head on your shoulders, you must have respect and I believe that is taught. Otherwise, I have a zest for life and to be a positive person.
A film over your journey is in production. Will Tahiti be in it?
No, unfortunately. Most of the film is already in the editing stage and there are very few scenes left to shoot. It took three years to film. Three years of my life between the 2013 World Championships in Rio and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The idea for this film is to share with the general public what a high-level sport entails including developments and challenges.
Interview compiled by Alexandra Sigaudo-Fourny