FORGES-LES-EAUX, France (Reuters) - Ask giant French judoka Teddy Riner what he fears and he will tell you: “Nothing, no-one — except my parents!”
The remark betrays the youth of the would-be Olympic champion, who took the sport of judo by storm last year when he won the world and European over-100kg titles.
Almost unheard of before he became judo’s youngest heavyweight world champion at the age of 18 in Rio de Janeiro last September, Riner, who stands 2.04 meters tall and weighs 129 kg, became an instant celebrity in France.
The Guadeloupe-born athlete struggled to deal with the fame and the pressure of following in the footsteps of compatriot David Douillet, a double Olympic champion and four times world gold medalist.
As he prepares for Beijing, though, the heavily muscled Riner, nicknamed “Teddy Bear” by female fans, has come to terms with his celebrity.
“After Brazil, there were ups and downs but I have now learned how to cope with it all, how to say no to media before competitions,” the softly spoken Riner told Reuters in an interview.
“As for people who walk up to you in the street, you can’t say no to them, you should simply say ‘thank you’.”
Hyperactive as a child, Riner tried his hand at swimming, tennis, football and even modern jazz dance before focusing on judo.
Later, when he was training at France’s National Sports Institute outside Paris, coaches from basketball and boxing tried to convince this exceptional athlete to have a go at their sports.
Riner declined the offers, remaining faithful to judo, a sport popular in France.
His win last year gave France their first heavyweight world title since Douillet’s triumph 10 years earlier and followed a shock first-round victory over the sport’s master, Kosei Inoue of Japan.
Riner is so confident about his chances in Beijing in August that he decided not to defend his European title in Lisbon this month.
“With my coaches, we looked at my programme and we decided it was not necessary to go to the European championships before the Games,” he said.
“I’ve started a period of four weeks concentrating on bodybuilding. I walk on the mat only to work on my technique but I don’t do any fights.
“Technically, I’m nearly ready, I’ve only got to fine-tune a few details. I’ve just come back from a two-week training session in Japan where I practiced a lot. Physically, I still need to work, to push my limits even further.”
A medal in Beijing is the focus of his entire year.
“I know I can win but I also know I can lose in the first round,” said Riner, who lives in Paris with his parents and studies micro-computing.
“What I want is to bring back a medal, a nice one. I know there will be many fights and it will be tough but I also know I can do it.
“All I want is to bring back a medal.”
Riner’s coach Franck Chambilly has faith in his charge.
“I haven’t any doubt about his ability to become Olympic champion,” Chambilly, himself a European medalist at the lighter weight of under 60kg in the 1990s, told Reuters.
“The strongest thing about him is his mind and he will do everything to be Olympic champion. There’s no doubt about it, though he still has progress to make.
“There isn’t much time left but I am not worried as he absorbs new information very quickly.”
Writing by Patrick Vignal, Editing by Clare Fallon