Irene Sánchez-Escribano and Niko Shera

The Goal: Paris - Ep. 6

09/13/2023 · By Redacción TAB
Irene Escribano and Niko Shera, athletes of the Iberia Talento a bordo Team

Irene Sánchez-Escribano knows exactly what overcoming obstacles is like and Niko Shera is used to falling down and getting back up again. Their respective sports, athletics and judo, have built their characters and turned them into the people they are today. Their coaches, who saw the talent and potential within them, have been key. Now, they both dream of the Paris Games.

The Tokyo Games were frustrating for both Irene Sánchez-Escribano (Toledo, 1992) and Niko Shera (Tiflis, 1996), for different reasons. Just a few days before setting off for the capital of Japan, this athlete felt her left foot crack during training. Tests confirmed the injury: a broken second metatarsal bone. In an unfortunate turn of events, Irene was forced to postpone her big dream: taking part in the Games. “I was really sad that summer —Irene reminisces—. I had qualified to compete in 2019, but then the pandemic hit and they were postponed to 2021. Ten days before travelling, with everything all set, I went to train and felt like I’d stepped on a twig. I remember the only thought running through my head at the time was: this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening...”

Niko did travel to Japan and did so as a firm favourite to win the gold medal. This Georgian judoka had been proclaimed world champion just one month before the Games, so expectations were sky high. In the end, Niko had to settle for an unexpected seventh place. “The pressure made me not enjoy the competition —Niko admits—. It made me worse. I went through the motions, but wasn’t feeling great; I could have lost the first fight. The greatest pressure I felt was from myself, not the press, because I’m really hard on myself.” When he got home from Tokyo, he sought refuge in his family and, alongside his team, took a decision he’d been putting off for a while: changing category from -90kg to -100kg with his sights set on Paris.

When Niko was starting to adapt to the new category, he suffered another tough setback: he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. A severe injury that kept him off the tatami for months. After meticulous rehab, this judoka set foot on the tatami again this summer. And he did so in none other than his second home, the DojoQuino judo club in Brunete, with the same ambition as always. “My injury forced me to disconnect from judo. Now I feel more excited and I can’t wait to compete again. My goal remains the same: becoming a champion at the Games.” If Niko has learnt anything from judo, he assures us, it’s to never give up. “You fall down a lot in judo. The slightest distraction is penalised, you lose by ippon and are sent home even if you’ve done all the work in the world and feel ready to win.”

“My injury forced me to disconnect from judo. Now I feel more excited and I can’t wait to compete again. My goal remains the same: becoming a champion at the Games” — Shera

Irene also shares this “never-give-up” attitude. In fact, after her injury, she returned to competing and, in the summer of 2022, during the World Athletics Championships in Eugene (United States), she achieved her personal best (9:23:94). She didn’t manage this at the recent World Athletics Championships in Budapest (Hungary). Nevertheless, her goal is to still qualify for Paris and step on the track at the Stade de France. On this journey, she’s receiving the help of her psychologist, Pablo del Río, whom she’s been working with since 2018. “He has helped me to believe more in myself —Irene confesses—. And he also helped me a lot with my injury. I sought solace in the idea that, despite not being at the Tokyo Games, I was well-prepared and had enjoyed the process. I believe that enjoying yourself every day is the most important thing, feeling privileged that I get to do what I love, my passion.”

Building talent
Niko started practicing judo in Georgia with his father, who’s a big fan of this sport. When his family decided to pack their bags and come to Spain, teenage Niko didn’t set it aside, but threw himself even more into the sport. “In my town [Brunete] I found a club, DojoQuino, and that’s where I met the best coach in the world. I was lucky to cross paths with him because, without him, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.” With a mixture of admiration and adoration, this judoka talks about Quino Ruiz, who won the European Judo Championships in 1988 and came second in the World Championships in 1991 in the -71kg category, and has encouraged the talent of a two-time world champion (2018 and 2021).

Irene’s coaches have also been key in her career, specifically two: José Luis Carbonell, the person who discovered her at the age of 9, and Antonio Serrano, who guided her when she went to Madrid to study at 18. In fact, Antonio was the one who encouraged her to change to 3000m steeplechase, the race that led to her becoming the best in Spain —she won her first title in 2015 and again in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021—. “Sometimes there’s a turning point in your sports career because you meet someone. If I hadn’t changed race, I wouldn’t be doing this now.”

“Talent is often considered innate, but then you have to develop it and that takes hard work, effort and sacrifice. It’s the only way to be good at something” — Sánchez-Escribano

When defining talent, we’re not surprised that Irene and Niko share the same perspective, where there’s an innate element to talent but, above all, it’s the result of hard work. Let’s hear about this in their own words: “Talent is like starting one step ahead of the rest and this shouldn’t be downplayed, but hard work and sacrifice do the rest,” Niko declares. In Irene’s opinion: “Talent is often considered innate, and I do believe that you need to be born with something that makes you stand out, but then you have to develop it and that takes hard work, effort and sacrifice. I think it’s the only way to be good at something.” Niko makes one final point: “Being connected to talent is important because each of us, in our own way, convey, teach and learn. I learn all the time from the people around me.”