The Canadian judoka is competing at the Judo Doha Masters and is poised to make his first appearance at the Olympic Games this July
Canada's Shady El Nahas continues his rise as one of the world's best judokas after rounding up 2020 with two spectacular wins.
He won bronze at the Judo Grand Slam in Budapest, Hungary and a few weeks after defended his PanAmerican Senior Championships -100kg category title in Guadalajara.
Now El Nahas is all set to compete in the Doha Masters (11 – 13 January), one of judo's first international events to kick off in 2021, where the Candian hopes to continue his winning streak from the past year. There will be more than 400 athletes participating from 70 countries as it doubles as a qualifier for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“In every competition I go in, I want to win the gold medal. So hopefully that's my goal, the gold medal or at least be on the podium - that's my realistic goal. And on the International Judo Federation (IJF) circuit, I've only won one gold medal and I always get silver or bronze more often, but hopefully [it’s the] New Year and then, you know [I want to earn] gold medals,” El Nahas told Tokyo 2020 in December 2020.
El Nahas, who is currently world no 7, is a sure shoe-in for Tokyo 2020.
"I think if I do really good in Masters, I am safe because I'm top seven already in the Olympic team."
"But if I want to stay in the top eight to be seeded, I need to medal at the Masters. If I do so, I don't need to do much more. But I think my plan is to do Masters, Paris and World Championships so far. But depending on how things go, maybe I do more maybe I do less. We will see."
El Nahas has always envisioned himself becoming a top athlete in judo and says his fight to be the world's best continues.
"Even before I was on the IJF circuit, I believed that I was able to be one of the top in the world. But of course, once you try and fight the top in the world it's very different. And I think that means I realised what I needed to work on. So in every interview I had [given], [I said] I certainly want more power, I need more weight. And now I'm starting to be heavy - maybe a little bit too heavy because of the quarantine," he joked.
With all the quarantine rules restricting training in Canada, El Nahas has had to quarantine two times and have only gotten a few days break over the Christmas period to prepare for Doha. And he says it has been challenging.
"We're doing more of a bubble training, so we're we're separated into groups of four instead of everybody training together, of course, to try to be safe."
It is a stark contract to his athletic life back in 2019, where training had been intense and competitions going non-stop. In fact, a year before COVID-19 pandemic upended all sports competitions, El Nahas took 49 flights to compete internationally. And despite a lacklustre competition calendar in 2020, El Nahas sees a silver lining.
"Now that we know everything is coming back to normal - well normal 'a little bit' - we're more motivated. I think that was a very good break for everybody that was injured, for everybody that had to be healthy to take care of some injuries. So I think it was healthy and also to fresh in your mind, because for me I was stressed and after a while my mind was tired, my body was tired. So this was a very long but good break for me and a lot of other people," he said.
From Egypt to Canada
Aside from having a career on the rise, El Nahas is also being recognised for something else.
Explosive on the mat, El Nahas brings a new side to sport where self-control had always been a moral code. He has a towering height at 6'2 feet (1.88 metres), screams like Bruce Lee or jumps after he makes a big throw or topples his opponent on the mat.
"So yeah, my routine and my way of fighting is very emotional and aggressive and I think and it builds up to having a lot of passion for the sport."
El Nahas' passion for winning came all the way back in Egypt where he had been bullied as a kid and had to fight his way to earn respect.
"I was I was kind of overweight as a kid a little bit. I was weak and I had one specific bully. I would always beat me up and then Mohab [my brother] would defend me after because he did judo before me. And then I started doing judo and I started to defend myself. And then the bullies became less and less. And I became and got more in shape and I knew how to protect myself. So it worked out. No more bullies," El Nahas recalled.
Overcoming that part of his life, El Nahas had to deal with another change. At age 11, El Nahas and his family moved to Canada. The sport helped him transition in his new surroundings and also shaped him to be the person he is today.
"It's true that when I first came to Canada, when I go to training, everybody was welcoming," he said. "I think with judo overall, anywhere you go in the world, judo is a very - even though you're fighting off the mat - is very friendly.
"So no matter where I was in the world, I made friends really quick because of the sports and the way the sport teach you how to be, how to carry yourself. It kind of attracts more people to you so it makes you more likeable. And because you're respectful, you're good. Judo makes you a good person I think, or it tries to make you a good person."
Whilst Egypt will forever be the place of his childhood and where he started judo, it was in Canada where he realised his real love for the sport.
"I didn't do judo for a year but when I came back to Canada, I started judo again and I was like, wow, this is I love the sport and I can do good. I think once I realised that I am actually good at the sport and I can do good at the sport, I loved the sport even more," El Nahas said.
Siblings as Olympic hopefuls
For El Nahas, judo is essentially a family business. His brother Mohab is also a judoka and an Olympic hopeful like himself who has been on his side all throughout his evolution as an athlete.
"[His support] is very important because Mohab knows my judo better than I know my judo. Every time before a final before a big fight, I always call him before my fight. My brother is obsessed with judo - he watches judo 24/7 on YouTube and everything so he knows the style of everybody who fights so he knows how to do and what not to do so I do good against them."
"I think my coach and Mohab are the only two people I trust and I listen to and I fight before, like when I fight. If Mohab's in the competition, I look at my coach first, then I look at more than I fight every day and then look at coach, look at Mohab."
Mohab's influence on his brother was so great that El Nahas even had to switch his fighting style from being a right-handed athlete to being a lefty.
"So in judo I started as a right hand. But then Mohab would always control my sleeve so I could never fight so I switched left to protect myself. And because of this, I started to always start with this to protect myself. So it became a habit to go like this and fight like a left handed fighter. And this kept going for years. And then I just became comfortable to be left handed in judo."
"And because of this, Mohad knew what to do to make me better, fight better as a lefty. And of course, it just kept kept going and I kept getting better as I lefty," El Nahas said.
Mohab is also partly responsible for keeping their ties with the Egyptian Judo team.
"When I saw them on the Olympic circuit or the IJF circuit, I was already like a family already because they knew my brother. We fight on the mat, but outside the mats, we're all very good friends."
© Rafael Burza
Fighting for Canada in Tokyo 2020
Both Mohab and El Nahas will be fighting for their place in the next couple of months to represent Canada at the Games. If both brothers secure their spot, we'll see another sibling counterpart to Japan's ABE Uta and Hifumi at Tokyo 2020.
With Mohad on his side, El Nahas believes the team is very strong this year and may have the chance to bring Olympic glory to Canada.
"I think this is one of the best things we have, like Arthur [Margelidon], Antoin [Valois Fortier], Jessica [Klimkait], Christa [Deguchi], everybody is doing really well this year. And I think from now it's just going to get better hopefully. And we have the right coaches, we have the right team right now, we have the right environment. And I think we can be a good winning team at the Olympics, hopefully."
When it comes to the Olympic Games, El Nahas just wants to go with the flow.
"I think the way I like to think about stuff is I don't want to think too ahead because it might stress me and play with my mind, because like in the world championships last year, I always thought I I need to do good for like three months before the competition and that kind of stresses me."
"So for now, I'll focus one month at a time or one one tournament at a time and then climb my way to the Olympics, of course. But also I'm in the back of my head. I'm always thinking I will be Olympic champion hopefully. So that's the main goal."
El Nahas is aware that come Games-time, it's going to be the fight of his career.
"I think for the Olympics it is do or die. If I'm tired if I'm lazy, if I don't feel good tournament I need to block this all out and just fight until I can't no more. And I know I've seen ABE [Hifumi] and MARUYAMA [Joshiro]'s fight for 24 minutes, which is insane. That was an amazing fight."
If he's selected on Team Canada, El Nahas is looking forward to coming face-to-face with Japan's Aaron Wolf - whom El Nahas said is a tough competitor.
"I'd say my rival, even though I never beat him, would be Aaron Wolf, of course, because I think I think he's the hardest fight for me in the whole division. And that's one person I think if I beat, it would be like my best win on my circuit or on my record because he's the hardest fight for me so it would be very good if I can have a fight with him," he said.
"I [also] would love to fight [Varlam] Liparteliani. I never fought him before and I grew up watching him so it would be a cool fight to fight him."
El Nahas is all the more excited that his first Olympic Games coincides with the sport's return to its spiritual home - Tokyo - where it has been introduced first to the world 57 years ago in 1964.
"Olympics in Tokyo for judoka is a dream come true. It's insane because it's where judo started and I think Judo's pretty big in Japan Of course, I think this will help everybody watch judo because the Olympics are of course a really big deal. But the Olympics in Japan is even bigger. I think it will be the greatest Olympics in history. I think so."
And if he wins in the same venue where it all began, El Nahas says:
"I think there's no better way to win the Olympics than to win it in Japan and the Nippon venue in the Olympics. It's probably like a fairy tale, you know."