“Every medal I win is for my country. I take great pride in representing Azerbaijan at a high level so I am very happy to win European gold again.”
The experienced Ilham Zakiyev and Azerbaijan’s newest star Sevda Valiyeva helped Azerbaijan top the medal table at the 2017 International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) European Judo Championships in Walsall, Great Britain.
Zakiyev continued his dominance in the men’s over 100kg, while Valiyeva won gold in the women’s up to 52kg in her first international competition.
The pair were then part of the Azeri men’s and women’s team who won their respective finals in the team events to take Azerbaijan’s gold medal total to six at the end of the three-day event.
From cheating death to seven-time European champion
Zakiyev claimed his seventh successive European title in the men’s over 100kg in Walsall. But, even now, doctors don’t know how he survived.
In 1999, Zakiyev was on a combat mission on the front line of the conflict with neighbouring Armenia when he was wounded. A bullet from an Armenian sniper entered through his left temple and exited via the right side of his head.
“When I woke up the doctors told me I’d been in a coma for five days,” he said. “Everything around me was dark and I could not see anything; since that day I have been totally blind.”
Fast forward 18 years, and, after returning to the sport he had excelled at before joining the army, the 37-year-old judoka is a double Paralympic champion, two-time world champion and now a seven-time European champion.
“Every medal I win is for my country,” added Zakiyev. “I take great pride in representing Azerbaijan at a high level so I am very happy to win European gold again.”
Despite his multiple titles, Zakiyev says he is still learning.
“The key is I’m not sitting at home,” he said. “I do never give up. I have five European gold medals, but I am still working hard and still learning the technique of judo so I can be the best I can be.”
Zakiyev believes Azeri judo success is down to athletes inspiring each other.
“The talent in Azerbaijan is very high,” Zakiyev said. “We all work to be the best we can and we inspire each other. I love my job and so do my teammates. We want to be the best and never give up.”
Valiyeva: Azerbaijan’s newest champion judoka
Nineteen-year-old Sevda Valiyeva is one of Azerbaijan’s next generation of stars who showcased her talent at the European Championships as she won individual and team gold in Walsall.
Valiyeva was competing in her first international competition outside Azerbaijan and she was delighted to leave with two gold medals.
“I am very happy to have won two gold medals,” Valiyeva said. “The event has been a good experience and a good test against competitors from around Europe so to win two titles is great for me.”
Valiyeva joined forces with compatriot Khanim Huseynova to win the women’s team event and she said being around experienced Azeri judokas only makes her better.
“Competing and training with the other Azerbaijani judokas is a good experience and a good opportunity for me to continue on improving,” Valiyeva said. “I try to gain as much as I can from them to improve my training and technique.”
She began practising judo at age 11; eight years later and she is a European champion. The 19-year-old now has ambitions of adding the world and Paralympic title to her European victory.
“I am still young and new to international competitions so my goal is to keep improving,” Valiyeva said. “Next year I have the World Championships and then the Paralympic Games in 2020; my hope is to win gold.”