Perhaps you have heard of Rafaela…she just won the women’s gold medal in Judo. Her rise is a great achievement worth appreciating, and this 2014 video spells it out beautifully.

Her story is outstanding: raised in the City of God favela (shanty town or slum), she played and fought in the streets. She was always in trouble. But at age eight, her father took her to a local judo academy, and her coach saw her talent and cultivated it. He said she was used to seeing crime, drug dealers, dead bodies. She knew that the struggle in the dojo (training gym) was nothing compared to that.

She became so good that she competed in the 2012 Olympics in London. But she was disqualified there for using a leg move that had recently been declared illegal. She almost considered quitting judo after that…and the racist words hurled at her. But her judo friends and coaches supported her and encouraged her to stay with it…then she became the world champion in 2013 and the Olympic champion in 2016.

Lots of young people want to follow her and be like her. Silva tells them to be themselves and follow their own dream. Good advice.

Another great part of this story involves the gym she went to that was founded in 2003 by Flavio Canto, who won a bronze medal in men’s judo at the 2004 Olympics. He was a Brazilian who had grown up partly in England and the US and saw the extremes of rich and poor in Rio and wanted to do something about it. So he offered free judo classes to kids from the favelas. He saw that the discipline and achievements in the dojo led to improved performance, values and attitudes in all the rest of the kids’ lives. In school and at home, judo’s teachings of bravery, determination and humility were transforming the kids. They were improving and bettering themselves. Canto’s dojos are in five different favelas catering to around 1000 students.

“In life we always seek for an activity that makes you complete. Until then my life was all about judo and the Olympic dream. When the Instituto Reação came into my life I found a new way, which made me feel accomplished. This social project prepared me to leave the competition behind. In my last years as an athlete I no longer felt so motivating to have results and winning medals. I knew within me was born a desire to do more important and relevant things,” said Flávio.

“When this project started I began to live the reality of the slums and that shocked me a lot. I realized that there were generations getting lost to violence, in the drug dealing war. It was common to see young boys of all ages carrying weapons very close to our academy here in Rocinha. I still wasn’t sure if my intention of bringing sport and education (literacy) closer to these kids could work,” he explains.

There is no doubt about it now. He certainly has made a difference way beyond discovering and training an Olympics gold medalist.

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