When Majlinda Kelmendi fights, an entire nation stands still.
The 26-year-old is more than just a talented judoka — she’s Kosovo’s biggest sporting icon.
Her face adorns billboards all over her home city of Peja, where locals speak in hushed tones about their country’s first ever Olympic champion.
Her legacy is equally unmistakable, with a new generation of Kosovar stars emerging in her wake, from junior world champion Distria Krasniqi to Paris Grand Slam gold medalist Akil Gjakova.
“Through judo I became somebody,” Kelmendi told CNN ahead of Rio 2016. “I don’t do it because of money, I don’t do it because I wanted to get famous. I do judo because I feel it, I love it — it makes me feel good, makes me feel special.”
The three letters “KOS” on the back of Kelmendi’s judogi are more than just a label of origin — they’re a bold statement of identity for a Balkan region battling for independence.
When she carried the Kosovar flag at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony, the half-lightweight fighter also had the weight of a nation on her shoulders. She did not disappoint.
Kelmendi defeated world champion Misato Nakamura of Japan en route to a gold-medal showdown against Italy’s Odette Giuffrida. A single yuko score in the final was enough to secure her country’s first ever Olympic medal.
“It means a lot,” said Kelmendi, who broke into tears as she left the mat. “People, especially kids in Kosovo, look to me as a hero.
“I just proved to them that even after the war, even after we survived a war, if they want something they can have it.
“If they want to be Olympic champions, they can be — even if we come from a small country, a poor country.”
For her coach Driton Kuka, who was instrumental in building Peja’s dojo after the war, the years of hard work had finally paid off. It was the “most beautiful day” of his life.
“She has a big fighting spirit,” Kuka told CNN. “She is always ready to give more than 100% in training.”
Fight for recognition
Just competing for Kosovo had been a victory.
The European nation of about two million people was only recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 2014, meaning Kelmendi had to be content wearing the colors of Albania at London 2012.
Courted by Azerbaijan and encouraged to “go somewhere else” by her mother to support the family, Kuka urged her not lose hope.
“It was not easy,” he admitted. “Majlinda’s family live in hard financial conditions — they put pressure on her to go because a lot of good money offers came from many countries.”
Fortunately, the International Judo Federation had paved the way for her to compete for Kosovo two years earlier, culminating in the nation’s first ever world title in 2013 — also in Rio de Janeiro.
Memli Krasniqi — then minister of culture, youth and sport in Kosovo — called it “a spectacular victory and a historic moment for Kosovo sport,” expressing excitement to see the flag raised and anthem played at that stage for the first time.
But when she defended her -52kg crown at the Chelyabisnk 2014 World Championships, Kelmendi was forced to fight without “KOS” on her back once again — this time in favor of the “IJF” acronym.
The host nation, Russia, still supported Serbia’s claims to Kosovo territory and refused to recognize her homeland.
Kelmendi’s fight, though, was on the mat, and she duly won her second world title, this time defeating Romania’s Andreea Chitu in the final.
Kosovo’s anthem wasn’t played as she stood atop the podium, but she had done her people proud, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in attendance.
“We felt so bad but we were motivated to get a good result, and we did it — Majlinda become double world champion exactly in Russia,” said Kuka, who helped fund her rise up the ranks.
The freedom to dream
In December 2014, Kelmendi was named the best judoka in the world and handed a check for $50,000 by the IJF.
She has since won numerous European Championships and Grand Slam titles, in addition to that historic Olympic gold.
Perhaps the biggest victory remains the freedom to represent her country on the mat.
“When we got recognized by IOC, it was the best thing that happened to Kosovo,” said Kelmendi.
“Not just for sport but as a country, because now athletes and young kids can dream to be in the Olympics and represent Kosovo.”