Interview With Judoka Anastasiia Balaban

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Anastasiia Balaban was born on 24 December 2002 in Ukraine. She is in the -48kg weight category in Judo. She represented Ukraine until 2018 and won several medals at European Cups, European Championships and World Championships.

Since 2019 she has been fighting for Bulgaria and she won the silver medal at the EYOF in Baku that same year. Anastasiia came 5th at the Junior World Championships in 2021 and captured the bronze medal at the Junior European Cup in Athens in 2022.

  1. Tell us more about yourself. Where you come from, how, where and when you first started Judo.

I was born and raised in Ukraine, and I lived there with my family until 2018. I started Judo there when I was approximately 11 years old. My younger brother had already started in order to expend his extra energy. So, I decided to try it just for fun and to see if I like it. In fact, I ended up falling in love with the sport after that first training. My mom said she never saw me happier than she did that day on the mat.

  1. Anastasiia Balaban

    Your father is your coach, so it seems Judo runs in your family’s blood. Tell us more about your father’s Judo journey and are any of your other family members doing Judo too?

My dad is my coach, but he didn’t do Judo. He’s done practically every sport aside from Judo. When I first started Judo I was with another coach, and at first, my dad was helping me with my physical preparation when I had free time. But afterwards, especially when we moved to Bulgaria, he became my full time coach.

To be honest, if you see him during training and how he explains everything, you will never think that he wasn’t a judoka. I admire him and it’s really inspiring how much effort he is putting in during every session with me.

Besides that, my younger brother, Alex, is also practicing judo. He takes things easy and doesn’t push for any particular result, just enjoying every aspect non-professional sport can give- physical shape, community, friends, travelling, and self-confidence. But don’t put it in a negative light, he is a real talent and no one knows- maybe he is a rising star. 

  1. You previously represented Ukraine, why did you decide to change nationalities and represent Bulgaria? 

I was representing Ukraine until 2018 and competed and won medals at European Cups, European Championships and World Championships.

The decision of changing my country of representation was a consequence of facing a multi-factored decision that included changing my place of living. So, I didn’t move to Bulgaria specifically for Judo.

It was more about the unstable situation in Ukraine since 2014 (and now everyone sees why), lack of high level education institutions, political and economic problems in the country. Living in a member country of the European Union gives you much more opportunities than outside of the Union.

Anastasiia Balaban judo

  1. What are the main differences between Ukrainian Judo and Bulgarian Judo in terms of training sessions and sparring partners?

The main difference is in the amount of Judokas. Very small number of people train Judo here in Bulgaria, so there is a low level of competition. 

  1. You came 5th at the Youth Olympic Games when you were still representing Ukraine. Tell us more about that day and your fights.

It seems so long ago, but actually, I clearly remember that day and the fights. It is impossible to forget. The people, the spirit, the atmosphere. It’s all in my mind. In the start of the competition Sergey Bubka – the president of the Ukrainian Olympic committee and member of IOC gave an extremely inspiring speech with the main idea of showing one’s best self without any regret and inner restrictions.

My teammates from Ukraine were amazing. I still keep in touch with some of them. I never felt more support than I did that day. Actually, if I had to describe this competition in one word it would be support. Even my whole family came so far away to Argentina (at the time, my dad wasn’t my coach yet). 

After losing my bronze medal match, of course, I cried- there is no shame in showing real emotions. But it was a mix of tears, tears for losing the bronze, tears for making the unbelievably hard qualification to participate and fight at the Youth Olympics, and the awareness of how many great people are surrounding me and how much support I actually have. 

Anastasiia Balaban competing
Anastasiia Balaban wins Bronze
  1. You just won the Bronze medal at the Athens Junior European Cup and next week you’re fighting at the Antalya Grand Slam. How are you feeling right now physically and mentally?

I feel that there is a lot of work to be done. Taking part in the IJF TOUR events is important and essential for my transition from Juniors to Seniors since I’m in my last year as a Junior. I need more experience in high level competitions and that’s what I’m doing now. 

  1. What are your Judo goals for this year?

This year is a transition year for me to Seniors as I mentioned, so the main goal is to build my strong Judo, increase my technical skills and my physical form. 

  1. Are you aiming to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris? You seem like you’re in very good form right now. Especially after coming 5th last year at the Junior World Championships in Olbia, Italy. We can all agree you’re more than capable of qualifying for the next Olympic cycle.

At the Worlds I was really in good shape. However, at the U23 European Championships in November I picked up a shoulder injury. The injury forced me to stop training temporarily in order to recover, so consequently I lost my sport form. 

From the beginning of this year, I got positive with Covid, so that also postponed my training program. 

Actually, I am just starting to gain form. 

About the Olympics, I really want to qualify for 2024. I know the process and how far I am from the goal. But I keep myself focused on small steps, one at a time. 

  1. What does a typical training week look like for you? How many sessions do you have per day/week and what do you do during those training sessions?

My normal schedule is 2 training sessions per day every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. 

With only 1 training session per day every Wednesday and Saturday. 

Sunday is my day off from training.

  1. How do you prepare yourself mentally for your first fight at a competition?

The first fight is always the most difficult. I don’t keep a mindset of losing or winning. Instead of that, I try to be focused on my Judo and my tactics for my opponent- it is the main goal for each fight. 

  1. How are you coping with the current situation in Ukraine? Do you still have family there? If yes, did they manage to leave Ukraine or are they still in the country?

It is hard, extremely hard, especially when it all started suddenly. Before the real attacks there were some rumors amongst the population, thus no one believed that there would be an actual war in the 21st Century. 

From my relatives, only my grandma is still in Ukraine. But she feels like everything is alright, she is going to her work every day. Of course, we are all scared and we are worried about her, but there is no way to go against her decision. 

  1. When you’re not busy training, what do you enjoy doing? Tell us about your hobbies.

About my hobbies- they are simple, and are of an introvert; reading, cooking, hanging out in the city or mountains- mainly alone. 

Meeting with friends is hard to organize because of my busy schedule, and most people my age enjoy spending time in pubs, clubs, and at noisy parties- I am getting extremely tired of those kinds of activities so I prefer to avoid them. 

  1. Are you just training full-time? Or are you also studying or working?

Training is a priority, so the first thing I do when I don’t train is recover- physically and mentally. The next priority is education. So I catch up on all the studies that I missed during the week due to training so that I can stay tuned. From March I also started to study with the IJF Academy, so working is not an option at this point- as I don’t have enough time.

Anyway, I’m not closing my life to other kinds of opportunities- if they appear, I will take them on to gain new experience.

  1. What do you love the most about Judo?

The way Judo educates and builds your personality, teaches you to be resilient to difficulties, always looking for the best possible solution and trying to do your best. You learn the mindset of going till the end, because by giving up there is no Judo.

And after that you copy it in every life aspect which gives you an opportunity to become good at anything you do. Also Judo teaches you to cope with failures, and to see them as mistakes and lessons, as an essential part of progress. 

  1. What do you tell yourself when you’re in a fight that goes into a long and gruelling golden score? How do you motivate and push yourself to go on when you’re physically feeling like you can’t?

Golden score fights are always about positive thinking- if you let even one negative cross your mind, you lose. I keep a mantra in my head “everything is alright, keep going” or something like that. 

Interview Date : 30 March 2022

Anastasia-Alexandra Nenova interview with Anastasiia Balaban for Sports Star.