As the crowd cheered and clapped from the stands, Almir Kapic collapsed to the ground in the arena, unable to fight back tears.
The 38-year-old Bosnian had just come out on top to be crowned Ultra Heavyweight champion in the brown belt division at the World Professional Jiu Jitsu Championship, held last month in Abu Dhabi.
Standing on the podium, Kapic was ecstatic as he proudly held up the Bosnia and Herzegovina flag.
“I couldn’t believe it … I started to cry from happiness,” Kapic told Al Jazeera of his win.
The gruelling training and years of perseverance and sacrifices had finally paid off.
“I achieved what I dreamed of in the world of jiu-jitsu – to become a champion and to tie the master belt.”
Started from the bottom
For the martial artist, it’s been a long journey to the top of the world.
Hailing from the small town of Banovici, Kapic’s earliest years were marked with a struggle to survive as a bloody war ripped Bosnia apart in the early 1990s.
He was just 13 when his father was shot and killed by a Serbian sniper during the nearly four-year war.
Left with his mother, he recalls having to line up as a child to receive food donations from the Red Crescent.
Food was often so scarce, many would consume leaves from the ground in order to survive.
“We were fighting to stay alive; to exist,” Kapic said.
Against the odds
That spirit of defiance stayed with Kapic throughout his Jiu Jitsu sporting career – and helped him overcome many hurdles.
In Bosnia, there is little state funding and official support for athletes like Kapic.
In order to train daily, Kapic and other Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners rent out a private space in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo.
Inside the 80 square metre facility, the floor is covered in two centimetre-thin tatami mats, unsuitable for jiu jitsu, a sport which mostly takes place on the ground as it requires fighters to fall on their backs and knees. Due to the unprotected surface, the athletes often sustain injuries.
But that’s not where the problems stop. In order to get to the latest competition in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Kapic’s friends pitched in to help him financially.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country where many things are in disarray – legally, socially and even for sports,” said Kapic.
“We, athletes, have to worry about ourselves and think about how we’ll train in bad, crowded conditions … We train from the little means that we have.”
Fuad Mujovic, Kapic’s strength and conditioning coach, said the challenging conditions are just part of every day life.
“We’re not the type of people who complain about not getting anything,” Mujovic told Al Jazeera.
“We got a lot [the gold medal in Abu Dhabi]; something that you can’t buy with money. The whole training process is demanding and gruelling, full of sacrifices but that’s something that goes along with sports. They say there’s one rule – train hard so that you can win easy”.
Kapic’s trainer for the past three years, Mujovic describes him as “extremely diligent, studious and disciplined”.
“His distinctive advantage over others I’d say is his intelligence and persistence that often borders with stubbornness,” he says.
“Just to be able to compete in this competition is an accomplishment, but the medal that he won is a story for itself.”
(This is a curated post. To continue reading the original article, click here: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/child-bosnian-war-jiu-jitsu-world-champion-180514202742195.html)
Andy Gonzalez is a coach at Aces Jiu Jitsu Club. He has earned his purple belt under Professor Mikal Abdullah. Follow Andy on Twitter at @GoGoGonzilla
Andy lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Amanda and their 3 beautiful children. Andy is also the father of a Marine who is honorably serving in the United States Marine Corps.