Photo by master1305

Judoists beaten by corona

Stuck at home with no tournament in sight

Photo by master1305
Judoists Koen and Paula put their social lives aside for their sport for years, but then the corona pandemic came, and all their tournaments were cancelled. ‘At first, it was kind of nice to have some free time, but now it’s getting annoying.’
6 January om 9:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 January 2021
om 9:31 uur.
January 6 at 9:29 AM.
Last modified on January 6, 2021
at 9:31 AM.

Door Sara Rommes

6 January om 9:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 January 2021
om 9:31 uur.

By Sara Rommes

January 6 at 9:29 AM.
Last modified on January 6, 2021
at 9:31 AM.

Sara Rommes

Volledig bio
Student editor
Full bio

During the first lockdown, 26-year-old Paula Borgonje would regularly run up the hill next to the Kardinge complex. Not because she particularly enjoyed it, but because it was a good way to stay in shape. She hasn’t been able to practise her sport of choice, judo, since March of last year. 

Koen Visser (21) is in the same boat. He normally does judo training three times a week, but he had to change gears as well. He decided to shift to weight training and took up running, just like Paula. 

Almost no one at judo club De Mattekloppers trained last year, with the exception of the summer, because judo is a contact sport. That’s been a bummer for all members, but especially for Koen and Paula, who practise the sport at a high level. 

No goal

‘At first, it was kind of nice to have some free time, but now it’s getting annoying’, says Koen. ‘It’s difficult to simulate the judo movements during other exercises. I’m not doing any technical training right now.’ 

It’s also difficult to keep sight of their goal, they both say, since tournaments keep getting postponed or cancelled altogether. Three weeks before the national qualifications were supposed to take place, they were told they were postponed again. They were disappointed; they’d been working so hard. It’s important to have a goal if you want to combine being a top athlete with being a university student.

It’s difficult to simulate the judo movements during other exercises

Paula was invited to join the Dutch national team when she was fifteen years old. In 2013, she became the Dutch junior champion. Her weight class is 57 kilos or less, and she’s been winning Dutch and international tournaments left and right. In 2019, she and her Mattekloppers mixed team became the third best team in the country. In the meantime, she was doing a study in pharmacy at the UG.

Koen spent a large part of his childhood in New Zealand. At eighteen, he moved to the Netherlands on his own to work on his judo career. For two years, he trained full time to become a top athlete in Heerenveen. Now, he’s a medical student, representing New Zealand at the biggest judo tournaments, in the weight class of 90 kilos or less.


The judoists are top athletes, which means they train a lot, eat healthy food, and go to bed on time. This doesn’t leave much room for a social life as a student. Paula hasn’t been able to eat cake on her birthday for years. ‘My birthday is in September, which is right before the qualification rounds for the national championship’, she says, laughing.

Paula Borgonje (right) on the mat.

Paula has since graduated, but when she was still a student, she’d also train every day and attend big tournaments in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. Combining student life and the life of an athlete was difficult, she says. ‘I had to learn to choose between judo and studying. I really wanted to study, but I also had to make concessions when I wanted to focus on judo.’ 

Studying can’t always come in second place

But it is a misconception that you can choose to only study or only be a top athlete, says Paula. ‘Studying can’t always come in second place. Sometimes you have to put it in first place.’

Koen was doing a special track in Heerenveen for the first few years of his studies, and since he lived there as well, he spent a lot of time travelling. ‘It’s not something I really thought about; it was what my life was like at the time. I did what I had to do’, he says. ‘But now that I live in Groningen, I sometimes look back and wonder how I managed it.’ 

Studying on the bus

The university wants athletes to pass their exams like normal. Only the absolute best get special dispensation. ‘They won’t make any exceptions for you, unless you’re Epke Zonderland or something’, says Koen. He often spent his nights studying on the bus back from a tournament. ‘Sometimes I had exams the next day.’ 

They only make exceptions for people like Epke Zonderland

‘Very few people make it to the actual top’, says Paula. ‘But there’s a lot of us that are almost there.’ Being really good, but not necessarily great, forces you to make choices. ‘You have to sacrifice so much. To me, that’s only worth it if I make it all the way.’ 

When she was still studying, Paula lived with people who were not top athletes. It was actually nicer than living with other athletes, she says, since the strict regime and hard work can lead to a kind of tunnel vision. ‘My roommates kept me sane. They taught me what is and isn’t normal.’


Koen knows he’s sacrificed a lot for judo, but he’s also gained a lot from it. ‘My parents, family, and friends think I’m the best’, he says, chuckling. ‘They’re all like, wow, you’re so cool. Your life has structure.’ He’s pretty proud of himself, too: ‘I managed to get my bachelor’s degree while being a top athlete.’  

The corona measures haven’t changed the judoists’ ambitions. They try to train on their own as much as possible and work on their strength and endurance. Something else has changed, though. Maintaining their weight used to be a daily concern, but now that pressure is off. ‘Before corona, I competed in the 90 kilos or less weight class. I don’t know whether that is still the case’, Koen says.

Both athletes want to do judo for as long as they can. ‘You see so much. You learn how to plan and organise, and you travel all over the world’, Paula explains. Koen agrees. ‘I’ve been to so many places I never would have visited otherwise. My fellow judoists feel like a family.’ 

They both hope the coronavirus is defeated soon, so they can get back to the mat.