Serious Sisu: Carli Renzi

Carli Renzi is an Australian Judo champion currently based in Hong Kong. She took up Judo at the age of seven and at the age of 16 became the youngest black-belt in Australia after obtaining the rank in Japan. Carli won her first Australian Championship in 2000. The lightweight fighter won the Australian Championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and her first Oceania Championship in 2006. Carli missed out on qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics but qualified for the historic-first Australian Commonwealth Games freestyle wrestling team in 2010.

Carli took out the 2012 Oceania Judo Championships, qualifying to compete at the Olympic Games in London. The dedication it took to qualify for the Olympics now serves her well in her senior role with ANZ Bank. Since the London Olympics, Carli has welcomed a son and a daughter. She will soon begin the climb back to full fitness in order to teach her signature judo moves and encourage the next generation of girls into mixed martial arts sports.

How did you first get in to Judo?

My dad used to take me to swimming lessons at Epping Leisure Centre in Melbourne. When I was seven years old, he saw a sign for Judo classes, which he had learned as a boy, and he decided to enroll me.

 My coach as a kid was fantastic, he made training fun. It was hard work. There are always those days when you want to do something else, but I just remember dad saying “you can’t catch up a day missed of training” and he’s right. A day missed is a day missed. You’ll never get that back again. 

What was it like being in a sport where you didn’t see many other girls?

For the first few years when I would go and fight at judo competitions, it was quite standard to have mixed competitions, so I would fight the boys. But that continued all the way up until I was about 17. It certainly became difficult, as they were a lot stronger. There were so few females in the sport that it was certainly necessary to train with guys, and then to get further experience you needed to fight with them as well.

What are the core principles of judo?

Judo is about maximum impact, minimum effort, and it’s essential to be able to prioritise each movement you make. It’s about off-balancing your opponent and throwing them onto the mat. It’s game-over if you throw them on their back with force and control.

Do you remember the feeling of winning your first fight?

I do. I was seven, fighting in the under-eights divisions against another girl. It was over in about ten seconds, which is how judo competitions can go. The feeling was like, “ah, yes”. I certainly enjoyed winning, I think everyone can relate to that satisfying experience.

When did it become clear that you had talent?

I used to win a lot of competitions, but back when I was a junior, there weren’t really the talent development pathways that exist now. I went to Japan for a year when I was 15 years old, for a high-school exchange. That’s where I got my black belt. At the time it wasn’t possible to obtain a black belt in Australia under the age of 18. When I returned to Australia and competed in the Nationals at age 17 in the Under 52kg division, I won. I was competing against two Olympic qualifiers, so that was the first time I really got on the radar.

What was it like studying in Japan, the home of judo?

I went to a rural school on exchange in Hiroshima and of course the judo class was entirely boys. They made a special exemption for me to play. I remember that I was already better than most of the guys in the club, which meant that they hated training with me.

There was a massive macho ego thing in play. But my coach there was supportive and I did have one friend who would train with me separately and help me deal with that animosity. It was uncomfortable. It was high school—these guys were a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds. Their girlfriends would come along to the class and watch me beat up their boyfriends!

What defines your fighting style?

I am most associated with a strangle hold-down technique called Sankaku, which means triangle. That’s kind of where you have the person’s head and arm locked in your legs and then you just squeeze until they forfeit the fight; until they submit. Or you turn them with your legs onto their back and hold them down there for 20 seconds. I won a lot of competitions with that move.

How did your judo career progress?

After I won the Senior Nationals at 17, training kicked up a notch. I was automatically elevated to Australian team status and I got selected for international training and competitions. I later won Oceania and qualified for Junior World Championships. That was the first time I really got to see Judo as a world sport and to fight with high caliber, senior women for the first time. I got beaten. It was a bit of a realisation as to strength of judo females outside of Australia.

How did you deal with that perspective that you had some way to go?

It was hard because in Australia you’re still left with the problem of there being limited females in martial sports generally. So what I actually started was doing the judo classes and then also going to wrestling classes. That way I could double-up on the fighting practice. Wrestling is somewhat similar to judo, in as much as it uses same muscle sets. It’s still about power, speed and agility.

Where did you set your sights for your sporting career?

I missed qualifying for judo in the 2008 Olympic Games, so I took a bit of a rest and took it down a notch to focus on my corporate job. Then I got a call out of the blue from my old wrestling coach. He said women’s freestyle wrestling will be included for first time in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi and that he thought I had what it takes to qualify, which I did.

It was pretty awesome to be there at the Commonwealth Games and to be breaking new ground. It meant that I got myself back into shape and became fight-ready. Having gone that far in terms of competing for 2010, I thought well it’s just an extra year to qualify and push myself to get to the 2012 London Olympics.

What was your Olympic experience like?

It meant a lot of travel overseas, in order to qualify through World Cups, Grand Prix and Grand Slams. I ended up being the only female that qualified for the Olympics across all the judo divisions. It was our smallest judo Olympic team ever as the selection criteria was tightened.

The feeling when I did qualify was completely awesome. I can remember sitting down at a big dinner with all the other qualifiers. We had that feeling of, “ok, now the hard work is about to get even harder”. For the rest of the time leading up to the Olympics we were in training camps, mainly in Europe and Japan. You get the best in the world attending these camps. It’s the only chance to have a crack at that top ten in a training environment.

What were your personal aims for London?

I wanted to get as far as I could go, that’s all you can do. In Olympic judo it’s not ceded. There is a little bit of luck to which player you might draw. It’s like tennis, you don’t want to draw Federer in the first round, but you have to do the best you can with what you’re given.

How did your Games play out?

I drew a bye in the first round. Then I drew the winner out of Great Britain and France, which turned out to be France’s Automne Pavia, the world number three. I remember I wanted to perform my best, but I also had that back-of-mind fear. With judo, it can be all over in five seconds. I thought “oh goodness, this girl is a very big thrower and there’s going to be some terrible photo or footage of me being launched up into the air and people are going to wonder why we sent this girl to represent our country, and she was only on the mat for five seconds”. It’s elimination too, so if you lose, that’s it, you’re out. As it turned out on the day, she won, but I went full time (five minutes) with her. She got a lot of good scores on me, but she didn’t convincingly win and cut the fight short.

Was it the fastest or slowest five minutes of your life?

It was fast. A painful-but-fast five minutes. You have to be very focused. At each break in the play you have to re-group your thoughts and start again. Any single lapse in any of those breaks is where you can lose the entire match. You have to have your wits about you the whole time.

It must be a hard moment after such intense preparation to reach the end. What was your take-away when you reflected on it all?

It was pretty disappointing when you realise you’re out in the second round. The take away was that I didn’t do badly. I didn’t shame myself or anyone else. I had an injured knee that unfortunately was a bit of a distraction, so it made my fight very difficult.

It is really disappointing when you lose like that, and it’s hard to overcome. It’s quite brutal the way that you lose. But the reality is, you still have to stay focused and help out the rest of your team so that they can put on their best show. The fear that we had at that point in time was that the Australians hadn’t won any fights in judo. The Australian team in London copped quite horrible pressure from the media. When I lost, I felt it was even worse for our team. We picked up a lot a few days later when one of our players won a fight. It uplifted our spirit.

I was also aware it would be my one and only Games. I couldn’t financially afford to do it again, and I was 30 and starting to carry injuries.

How important was your support network?

They were crucial. My family all came to London. My dad was super proud, as were my mum and younger brother and sister. That was just fantastic to have them all there. I also don’t know how I would have balanced it without my husband, Lucas. He started doing judo when we were both 17 and had started going out. He got to a blue belt himself, which is pretty good. He’s also a qualified personal trainer, so he gets it. He understood exactly why I had to eat and train as I did. He would go running or bike riding with me when I was doing cross training. We made one of our rooms at home a gym. It took over our lives with judo and single-minded training.

ANZ, my employer, gave me paid leave for about half of the time that I was away, which was great support. I was very lucky. My bosses at the bank, one of whom was a karate instructor, were right behind me. That’s not always the case—I’ve heard guys say “I don’t want to watch women’s judo, it’s boring” or “I would never put my daughter in Judo”. I’d hear that quite a lot.

Why do you think there is that perception?

Some people say they worry that judo’s a rough sport, and they want their daughters to do something ‘pretty’ like dancing. They don’t see women wrestling or being powerful as something that they want to encourage.

Judo has some really elegant technical aspects to it, but when you are training it is a grind, there can be lots of hits. I’ve had plenty of black eyes and dislocated limbs and things. It is a rough sport, and people probably find it a bit intimidating when females master it.

What’s the best way to combat that perception?

I’d say put it in your daughter’s hands. She’ll know what she can and can’t do and where she wants to go with it. You’ve just got to teach your kids to take every opportunity they’re given and to go where they want to go with it. You can’t direct them as to how they want to live their lives. I remember my dad saying to me “Carli, you just do what you think is right. You make good decisions”. Empowering your daughters to make decisions for themselves and to capitalise on opportunities and not worry about what others think is important.

Has female participation in martial arts improved in Australia since you started? 

Absolutely, you can see it’s improved and more girls are represented in competitions. Part of that is down to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) becoming more popular, along with the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). Those are very popular on TV and people are paid a lot to compete in them. Ronda Rousey is probably one of the most famous UFC fighters. She’s an ex-Judo player, who won America’s first Olympic medal in the sport, a bronze in Beijing. That exposure is doing a lot for the empowerment of women taking part in those sports.

What do you love about judo?

I appreciate that it’s a sport that anyone can play. It’s a very diverse sport in terms of the countries that compete. In London, ours was the only sport in which there was a Saudi Arabian female competing. She was in my division, and she fought with a hijab on, which was the first time in the Olympic Games. She copped plenty of criticism from people saying that this is not the kind of sport that a Muslim female should do. She did it nonetheless, and there’s a lot of bravery in that.

Has your experience as an Olympian made an impact on other areas of life?

Judo has definitely had applications in my career. I place judo on my resume because it provides a very clear sign to people that I’m driven and dedicated. Having had sporting success does give you that quiet confidence from knowing you have a track record of success.

Judo is also a sport where you train as a team. You can be sparring with someone and need to beat them, but you mustn’t injure them. You’re on the same side, and you have to be aware of that in every setting. Judo is also about prioritisation. You look at the hours in the day and what you have to get done, and my judo background certainly helps me to focus on what matters most.

What lies ahead for you?

Well, it’s been a complete pace change since having children. When you’re breast-feeding in particular it’s really hard to do any sport, especially judo. Next year will be my year of trying to get fit and coming back to do some martial sports again. I’m a bit scared of the pain of trying to get fit again, honestly. Especially after four years now without training at an elite level. Your mind and your body remember what it’s like and they remember how to move into position, but your muscles are not willing. I just want to get back to feeling fit and in a position where I can show people the moves I used to do well and teach it. I would like to do some training and coaching.

I hope to have more girls to coach and mentor when I do, and I’m looking forward to teaching my daughter, Asha

Claire Delahunty