In the big facilities at SATS Hornstull there are almost no people this Thursday morning. A few old regulars are pulling and pushing in their machines at the same time as a dozen of moms-to-be have gathered in a room for pregnancy workout. It’s hard to miss the 197 cm long and 100 kg heavy Martin Pacek and we find him loading a barbell with big weights. After each set he confirms the workout schedule in his National Team app. He explains that he’s coming back from a cold so he’s taking it a bit easy today. After many rounds of squats, jack knives and leg curls we sit down to talk about how it happened that the Pacek family ended up in Sweden.

The wrestling son becomes a judoka

”My father, Ryszard Pacek, was training wrestling at a high level and came to Sweden with the Polish national team in the end of the 70’s for a competition. He was in Haparanda training with the famous wrestler Tomas Johansson when he heard that there was a political chaos in Poland. Out of the 30 man national team from Poland, 28 decided to stay in Sweden, among them my father. He didn’t have a lot of money but he managed to get a job in Skåne where he later on met my mother who was visiting from Poland.” In 1987 Martin was born in Kristianstad and four years later his younger brother Robin.

”It's all about training hard, otherwise you won't get anywhere”

With a father crazy about wrestling the Pacek brothers were introduced to sports at an early age. During his young years Martin trained football, floorball, judo, wrestling and gymnastics; more or less everything that he could find. He started training judo at the age of 7 because his best friends talked him into it. “I fell in love with judo straight away, it really felt like my type of sport. With time I quit the other sports, one by one, as it wasn’t possible to find time for them all. I liked judo the most, maybe because that’s where I had the most friends. The combat was what I enjoyed and we had inherited a strong training mentality from our dad. He taught us that it’s all about training hard, otherwise you won’t get anywhere.”

It’s natural to assume that two over-energetic brothers with wrestling genes and a strong interest in judo would be constantly fighting each other at home, but that wasn’t the case according to Martin. “I’m four years older than him so it wouldn’t have been an even fight, plus I was always very kind to him when we were kids. In school on the other hand, there were many tough guys who wanted to pick a fight with me – the tall judo guy. I was 187 cm in 9th grade and everybody knew I trained judo, and that seemed to provoke some people, so it felt good being able to defend myself. Later in life I’ve worked as a bouncer and in that role I’ve seen many who want to come up and pick a fight. It’s nice to feel safe in those situations and being comfortable with how to react if something would go down.”

”You can do whatever you want tonight, but tomorrow morning you will be up early training!”

Daddy Ryszard explained at an early stage that there was no value in kids’ tournaments, that only the adult competitions counted. So at the age of 15, Martin participated in the Swedish adult national championship in Malmö even though his expectations were low. He ended up with a bronze medal and got selected to the Swedish National Team of Judo. At that point Martin decided to go all-in with judo and take every training session seriously. “Of course I missed out on some during the teenage years as I was always away during the weekends on training camps or competitions, but I still got to choose for myself. My dad used to say that you can do whatever you want tonight, but tomorrow morning you will be up early training! And I knew that those morning trainings were tough as hell which made the choice between partying and going to bed early easy.”

The ranking system’s equation

There is a ranking system that holds a central part in the judo world. Depending on how you perform in different competitions you get a certain amount of points which result in a position in the rankings. A high position in the ranking list means you get seeded in upcoming competitions and don’t have to face the toughest opponents at an early stage. Besides of the championships (European, World and Olympics), there are also tournaments called Grand Prix, Grand Slam and Masters. Only the 16 best ranked fighters in the world are invited to participate in Masters. Judokas with lower rankings travel the world to compete as much as they can in order to get more points, while the high ranked judokas can choose freely what competitions to go to. The points earned the year before are worth less than the ones from the present year, to make sure the fighters in the best shape has an advantage.

”The 22 best Swedes got to go to the Olympics and I was number 23”

”My biggest achievements I would say are ending up 5th in 2014 World Championship, two Grand Slam wins in Russia and a bronze medal at the Masters in Mexico this year. I travel a lot which can be tiresome, but I love competing. After every competition we have a training camp which is not always so fun when you’ve cut weight and are exhausted from the competition. But if you had bad luck and got eliminated from the tournament early, then maybe it feels good to at least get some training out of the trip. My results have given me a lot of points and high positions in the rankings. Prior to the Olympics in London 2012 I was ranked high the year before, but then I tore my hamstring muscle and had to go through surgery. That means I lost eight months of the second year and I went down in the rankings. When I finally could start training again I only had three months to get enough points to qualify. The 22 best Swedes got to go to the Olympics and I was number 23, so you could say I fell on the finish line.”

A dream of Olympic success

Sweden’s Olympic Committee (SOK) had already from the beginning said to Martin that it was the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that was important for him – that’s when he had to be at his very best, that would be the highlight of his career. Martin hired a mental coach and a nutritionist, optimized the strength training and did all necessary preparations. When the Olympics got closer in time he was ranked number two in the world and had just won a Grand Slam in Russia. Everything felt perfect. He enjoyed the walk-in of the Olympic opening ceremony, dressed in the Swedish colors and he was eager to perform. In the first match Martin faced Cho Guh-Ham from South Korea, and after full time neither one had been awarded any points. However, Martin had one more warning than his opponent which meant that the South Korean was awarded the victory; Martin’s Olympic dream was already over and the anticlimax was a fact.

”There are two-three guys in the world elite that doesn't suit me, and he is one of them”

”You can say that I prepared for the Rio Olympics for six years, maybe even seven. My focus has been on that competition for a long time. It’s kind of extreme if you think about it, that so much is at stake on a single day. Everybody in Judo knows how extremely small margins it is that determine a fight, especially on the highest level. A guy I beat one week can beat me easily the next week. In most tournaments many favorites get eliminated at an early stage. But the South Korean I faced is world class, he is very skilled but he hasn’t competed much during the last year and therefor he went down in the rankings. I would say that there are two-three guys in the world elite that doesn’t suit me, and he is one of them. He’s a left side fighter, short and goes down on his knees a lot, which is not suitable for my style of Judo.”

It does sound however, like the disappointment is starting to let go a little bit now when a few months have passed and Martin realizes he can’t change the past. “My goal was not a gold medal but to perform as good as I could. I never have medals as goals, since it would only put unnecessary pressure on me. I know that if I perform my best I can go very far, as long as I do my thing. If I do that I’m satisfied, even if I lose. If I prepared in the best possible way, did my best during the fight and stuck with the game plan, then there is nothing I can be disappointed about. Of course I’ve thought many times about what I could have done differently in that fight in Rio, but right there and then you decide to do it in a certain way and that’s nothing I can change afterwards anyway.”

A teacher fill-in with an interest in wrestling

During the two final years prior to the Olympics in Brazil, Martin didn’t have to work as he got money from sponsors and contributions from SOK. Since he was highly ranked he got some additional money which meant he could manage completely. Otherwise it’s normally very tricky for judokas to make a living on their sport and after the Olympics Martin would have to go back to work. “I’m a teacher fill-in at two great schools in Solna and Sollentuna. I jump in when other teachers are ill or I work as a resource when a student need some additional support. To get some more money I will try to get sponsors on my gi. We have four places on the gi where we can put sponsor logotypes and right now mine are empty. As of now I train two times a day and try to work some hours in between. The small amount of time left after that is dedicated to my girlfriend, but that’s often late in the evening when I’m exhausted and probably not so fun to hang out with.”

”I've trained with a few MMA fighters, like Papy Abedi”

We are always curious on what fighters those we interview like to watch, and on the contrary to many other martial artists Martin doesn’t watch MMA at all, but is instead drawn more to wrestling. “I’ve trained with a few MMA fighters, like Papy Abedi for example, as he is a judoka from the beginning. Of course I know of [Alexander] Gustafsson but I don’t think I’ve seen any of his fights. I’ve seen Ronda [Rousey] when she competed in judo, also here in Sweden, but I haven’t seen any of her MMA fights. On the other hand I have several friends in the national wrestling team so whenever they’re competing in the European or World Championship I’m watching. It’s always inspiring to watch those you know, like Robert Rosengren, Zakarias Berg, Fredrik Schön, Johan Eurén and Zakariasa Tallroth. Zakarias [Tallroth] has a blog I’m following, it’s very fun. If I would chose someone to read an interview with I’d say Robert Rosengren or Sofia Mattsson.”

When we starting looking ahead Martin says he’s aiming on next year’s World Championship which will be arranged in Hungary, and maybe on the European Championship as well. Since he doesn’t have any championship medals yet, he’s understandably eager to win one. He confess though that he’s still working on finding the motivation after his Olympic, which is not an easy task. We ask him if he has started to think anything about the next Olympics, which will be held in Japan in four years? “I’ve already got that question many times and of course I want to, it’s the home country of Judo, but there are so many pieces that need to fall in place to be able to do such a big project. SOK has to believe in me to give me the funds, my body needs to be free from injuries, the economy needs to be in place and it also depends a lot on in which stage I am with my girlfriend at that point. We’ll see!”

Even if he’s not even 30 yet, Martin has already many ideas on what to do after his judo career. “I want to start my own business and every day new business ideas pop up. At the same time I’ve invested so many years in judo so I might also stay in it and open my own academy. I think they’re doing a great job in Brazil with their social projects in the favelas where they get the kids involved in judo. Respect and discipline are central in judo and that’s exactly what the kids need. Rafaela Silva who won gold in this year’s Olympics comes from such a project. I think those kind of initiatives are extra important now when so much people come to Sweden and need to be integrated into the society. I often think of my dad who came here with nothing and how the wrestling helped him. Judo would be a great way for a lot of people!”

FighterInterviews says thank you to Martin Pacek and wishes him all the best in his journey back to the world top and his future goals!