A 9-0 record with eight ippons against players from 8 different countries, 16,000 air miles traveled and two major International Junior titles, not a bad week’s work! That’s exactly what 14-year-old Natalija Stanojevic was able to accomplish earlier this month.
Natalija, a member of the Menomonee Judo Club in Chicago, IL, started her week for the ages by flying to Belgium with Team USA Judo to compete at the Flanders Judo Cup. The Flanders Judo Cup takes place in Lommel, Belgium and brings together 800 players from nearly 20 countries.
“Although I was a bit nervous competing at such a large European tournament, having so many of my teammates and my coach there gave me lots of confidence.”, explained Stanojevic. She breezed her way through the preliminary rounds in the U15 +63kg division, defeating players from Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland by decisive ippon. In the semifinals, Natalija beat a player from Finland and earned a spot in the finals against Great Britain. On paper it looked to be a competitive match, as the player from Team GB had won all 4 of her previous matches by ippon. It took Natalija all of twelve seconds to end the suspense and secure the Gold Medal with a huge Harai Goshi for ippon.
“It was exactly the type of dominant performance that we expected out of Natalija. I knew that tougher, high level opposition would bring out the best in her Judo. It’s exciting to see someone who works as hard as Natalija get these type of results and accomplishments on the international stage.”, said Brett Wolf, Natalija’s coach at Menomonee Judo. This was only the second time that a player from the United States has won a Gold Medal at the Flanders Judo Cup, joining George Truong (U21 66kg in 2012).
While most people would pat themselves on the back and take it easy for a day or two before getting back to the grind, Natalija is not most people. 36 hours after returning to Chicago (and attending one day of school), she flew to Lima, Peru to represent Team USA Judo at the Infantil Pan American Championships. It was a very ambitious schedule for any elite athlete, let alone a 14-year-old, high school freshman.
“I was very excited to represent Team USA at the Infantil Pan Am Championships, because almost all of my teammates / training partners have competed at that event over the last couple of years. At the same time, we had a huge group from Menomonee Judo going to Belgium and I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to compete with them in Europe.”, said Natalija.
After multiple flight delays and some more pre-tournament jitters, it was time for her to go up against the best U15 competition that the Pan American region has to offer. Natalija drew a very tough player from Brazil in her first match.
“I actually think it was good to fight against her first. I was able to watch her first match and knew she was tough, but I was confident that if I played my Judo, I would win.”, explained a reflective Stanojevic.
After a couple of competitive exchanges, Natalija scored a highlight reel ippon to start her march to the Gold Medal. Two more decisive victories setup a finals showdown against another tough player from Brazil. There would be only one winner on this evening and Natalija made sure that she was the last one standing. After a brief encounter, she threw the Brazilian for a clean ippon to secure her second International Title in just seven days.
“It was a moment that I’ll never forget. I felt many emotions after I scored the ippon in the final. It had been such a long week, but we accomplished everything we wanted to. I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained, but it was well worth it!”, said Natalija.
Looking towards the future, Stanojevic has her sights set on more International titles. “I’m excited to see what the future holds. I want to make as many Cadet and Junior World Teams as I can and medal at these prestigious events. It’s great having Mackenzie Williams at Menomonee Judo, because she’s been to all these tournaments and will help me be at my best.”, explained Stanojevic.
She’s certainly a player we all need to keep an eye on in the coming years.