Sergiu Toma claimed the UAE’s second-ever Olympic medal and first since 2004 with a heroic journey to a historic bronze in the under-81kg judo at the Rio Games on Tuesday night.
The only other UAE Olympic medal came in 2004 when Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum took double trap gold in Athens.
Toma’s exploits at the Carioca Arena 2 in Rio on Tuesday have added to the nation’s history at the Olympics and he was in tears as he celebrated a hard-fought victory in the bronze-medal match.
“Since 2013, we’ve been meticulously planning for this moment,” Naser Al Tamimi, the secretary general of the UAE Wrestling, Judo and Kick Boxing Federation told Sport360°. “We’ve been nervous each day, and every single moment and it really is an indescribable feeling.
“The most important thing is that we achieved our goal and that we’ve managed to bring happiness to all UAE people.”
Sergiu Toma takes 81kg judo bronze, winning the UAE just a second Olympic medal in history and first since 2004 pic.twitter.com/XHTcicXWKd— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) August 9, 2016
The 29-year-old, originally from Moldova but a naturalised Emirati since 2013, took out Germany’s Sven Maresch in his opening bout, before overcoming Brazilian ex-world No1 Victor Penalber followed by victory over reigning Japan’s world champion Nagase Takanori en route to the semi-finals.
Toma lost to eventual gold medallist Khasan Khalmurzaev of Russia in the semis but triumphed over Italian Matteo Marconcini to capture the bronze medal with a sumi-gaeshi for ippon.
“This is the result of huge effort we’ve been putting in at the federation for a long time,” Mohamed bin Thaaloob Al Derei, the president of the UAE federation, told Abu Dhabi Sports channel.
“We have professional staff that is of very high level and have organised lots of world-class events.
“This achievement is credit to the federation, to the ministry of sport, to the UAE Olympic Committee, to every athlete who has worked hard.
“It is an achievement that brings happiness to all of us, to all Arabs and all Emiratis. Hopefully it’s just the start.
“Our goal is to create role models for our young Emiratis to look up to, so when they see there is an Olympic medallist from the UAE, they can get motivated to try and do the same.”
Khalmurzaev maintained his perfect record this year by taking gold yesterday.
The Russian has won all 20 bouts he’s had in 2016, taking his victory streak to 23 in total.
He beat American Travis Stevens in the final with an inner leg throw for a perfect ippon score.
Toma’s medal was the first by an Arab country this week at the Rio Olympics.
The UAE has another shot at a medal through another naturalised Moldovan, Ivan Remarenco, who takes part in the -100kg action on Thursday, opening his campaign against Algeria’s Lyes Bouyakoub.
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Khaled Al Kaabi on Tuesday begins his quest for a second shooting medal in UAE Olympic history as he takes on the world’s best in the double trap action at the Rio Games.
Coached by Emirati Olympic gold medallist Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, Al Kaabi hopes to emulate his mentor, just three years after picking up the sport.
The 31-year-old from Al Ain surprised himself when he qualified for Rio by taking gold at the Asian Olympic Qualifying competition in New Delhi earlier this year and admits he is feeling some pressure on his Games debut.
“Yes I feel pressure because I feel that everyone in my country is waiting to hear good news about me, so I have to do my best,” Al Kaabi told Sport360 ahead of his campaign kick-off.
While the UAE may be pinning its hopes on Al Kaabi, he is choosing not to put a high level of expectation on himself as he concedes he remains a newbie in the sport.
“For now I really don’t expect anything, because my plan was to qualify to the next Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020, and suddenly I see myself getting ahead of schedule,” he explains.
Ayesha Al Balushi believes she can leave the Rio 2016 Olympics with her head held high after she smashed her personal best mark in the 58kg weightlifting competition.
The 24-year-old lifted a total of 162kg to rank seventh in Group B, faltering on her final attempt to lift 94kg for the first time in her career.
“Thank God I feel like I have accomplished my mission at my first Olympics and that I raised the UAE flag and showed that an Emirati woman is capable of achieving great things against all odds,” said Al Balushi, who is the second UAE female weightlifter to compete at the Olympics, following Khadija Mohammed in London 2012.
“I would like send this message to everyone back home and tell them ‘raise your heads high, I am the daughter of the UAE and I am here, at the biggest sporting event in the world.’”
“I hope that I did my country proud and represented it in the best way possible and that I was a positive image for UAE women. The UAE is full of talent that is capable of accomplishing great things and I hope that my participation at the Olympics opens the door for other female athletes and paves the way for them to compete at major events.”
Al Balushi is hoping that the sport would get more attention following her efforts in Rio as she eyes further success in weightlifting.
“I learnt a lot from my Olympic experience, not just from a technical perspective but also from a lifestyle perspective. Mingling with world champions, seeing how they train, how they live their day-to-day live at the Athletes’ Village… all this has given me great motivation for future events and I already have my eyes on the gold medal in the upcoming West Asia Championships,” she added.
“I did my best after a very short preparation camp of just two weeks, so imagine how much better I could have done had I been able to prepare properly. I believe the upcoming period requires more attention from officials as it is absolutely necessary to travel abroad for preparation camps so I can achieve my goals and improve my level.”