Resilient Athletes

Israeli Olympian inspires while training at home


This ongoing photo stories examines the ways the coronavirus pandemic has upended and reshaped athletes' lives.

The postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo was one of the last gut punches to the sports world. The decision was not announced until March 24, well after major sports leagues began closing operations in mid-March. Israel's first male world champion Sagi Muki, currently ranked second in the 81 kilogram division, will have to wait another year to try to win his first Olympic gold medal, as the Games won't take place until 2021. Muki is continuing his training at home and has dedicated his free time to personal projects intended to raise money for coronavirus relief efforts and motivate those at home during isolation.

Muki, 27, finished fifth four years ago at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio and was a gold-medal favorite heading into the recently-postponed Tokyo Games. He won gold at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo by beating top-ranked Matthias Casse. "To have [the Olympics] delayed one year is not that easy, but this is the reality and I accept it," Muki says. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Muki, seen here in blue at the 2018 European Judo Championships, strongly supported the International Olympic Committee's decision to postpone because of the varying global conditions. "When I speak with my friends all over the world, a lot of people are not training," Muki says. "Some of them train half, and some of them train very hard because there are no limitations in their countries. When they did say they will delay [the Olympics] one year, it was smart." David Finch/Getty Images
The Israeli Olympic facility, the Wingate Institute, closed to athletes a month ago. Since then, Muki has relied heavily on training at home and has acquired equipment to transform his living area into his own gym. "I organized it like a gym and I have everything they do in the gym, but I can't do the judo," Muki said.
The greatest training challenge for Muki has been replicating specific judo activities that require a training partner. He's turned to Crossfit for physical activities, but has to use a heavy bag modified into a dummy to practice throwing opponents to the ground.
Muki is filming at-home workouts for his 47,000 Instagram followers. They include exercises that can be done using household props like chairs and tables.
"I see a lot of people are frustrated because they don't know what to do," Muki says. "[Videos] will bring them motivation because I have so many exercises they don't know and some challenges to beat. This is incredible to see the people, how far it's got."
Muki's Doberman Pinscher, Sode, is named after the Japanese word for a style of judo throw. Sode accompanies Muki on most of his daily runs at the beach, an exercise that can get difficult because of current conditions. "It's not that easy, because some days the limitations get worse and some days they release the limitations," Muki said. Recently during Passover, restrictions were more heavily enforced to limit gatherings.
Athletes are forbidden from training at the Wingate Institute, but have been able to attend restricted physical therapy sessions. Only two physical therapists are present at a time and athletes are limited to individual visits.
Muki has made it a priority to attend these sessions to keep his body in the best shape he can entering 2021. "We train very hard so all of the body usually hurts," Muki says. "So now that we cannot train like we used to, the body has time to recover. That's the good side."
“To have [the Olympics] delayed in one year is not that easy, but this is the reality and I accept it.”
Just a month before the 2016 Olympics, Muki sustained two herniated discs in his back. He stopped training, but still competed and finished fifth. He didn't compete again until the Grand Prix Tashkent in October 2017, where he took gold. "My back is just fine," he says. "I am doing a lot of movement training to open the flexibility of my back and make it stronger."
Muki is also auctioning belts, badges and his entire Tokyo World Championships uniform online to raise money for ventilators for hospitals in his hometown of Netanya, Israel. He says he's raised $40,000 so far. "My hope is everyone who is sick with this virus and needs it will have this," he says. David Finch/Getty Images
Muki says his gold at the inaugural European Games in 2015, competing in the under-73 kilogram division, motivated him at the Tokyo World Championships, seen here. "That was an amazing feeling, the best feeling of my life" he says. "To be on the top of the podium, not just for me but for my country, this was so amazing to understand that I did this." David Finch/Getty Images
Written by Anthony Gulizia