3 Top Coaches to Watch

Kuka, Suzuki & Hershko

Driton Kuka
Driton Kuka, head coach of Kosovo’s judo team is one of the most successful coaches today. Given the fact that Kosovo is such a small country, with not much resources, it’s remarkable what he has done, which is to produce three Olympic champions within two Olympics.

Majlinda Kelmendi was the first. She won her gold in Rio 2016. Then in Tokyo 2020, Distria Krasniqi and Nora Gjakova won their gold medals.

Today, Kelmendi has retired but Krasniqi is still going strong and fighting at her preferred weight of -52kg. She recently got a bronze in the Sofia European Championships.

Gjakova did not compete in Sofia. In fact, she has not competed since the Tokyo Olympics. It’s not clear whether she’s just taking a break or is retiring from competition (she is 29 this year).

But beyond these two Olympic medalists there are other rising stars from Kosovo. At the Sofia Europeans, Laura Fazliu (21) got silver in the -63kg division and Flaka Loxha (23) got a creditable seventh place finishing in the -57kg division.

Keiji Suzuki
Keiji Suzuki is head coach of the men’s team in Japan. He has big shoes to fill, taking over Kosei Inoue, who led the men’s team to five gold medals at the Tokyo Games. “He (Inoue) has done an excellent job and has set the bar very high,” Suzuki said of his predecessor.

But as a great champion himself (Suzuki’s an Olympic and double World Champion), he knows what it takes to make it to the top. And, the Japanese team of course has many top prospects for gold.

The Japanese men’s team is absolutely formidable in the lightweight categories. They are vulnerable in the heavier weight categories though. It has been a long time since the Japanese had a very dominant +100kg player. And this is the category that they prize the most.

The new All-Japan champion Tatsuru Saito shows great promise though. He is very young, at 20 years old, and currently doesn’t have much international experience though he recently won the 2021 Baku Grand Slam. He will have about two years to get ready for Paris 2024.

Shany Hershko
Shany Hershko has done wonders with the Israeli women’s team. His greatest success to date of course is with Yarden Gerbi who won the -63kg World title in 2013. But he has plenty of talent in his current crop of players.

At the recent Europeans, the results were impressive:
Shira Rishony, bronze at -48kg
Gefen Primo, fifth place at -52kg
Timna Nelson Levy, gold at -57kg
Gili Sharir, bronze at -63kg
Raz Hershko, silver at +78kg

This is all the more impressive when you consider how small a country Israel is. Hershko is famous for saying that for a small judo nation like Israel to succeed, they cannot try to emulate the way the Japanese train. They have to do it their own way. And he’s proven that their own way indeed works.