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UEL road to Rio: Szandra Szogedi finally fulfils her Olympic dream

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Sports journalism graduate praises support she received from UEL after London 2012 disappointment

By Simon Hart

She was born and raised in Hungary, lives in the UK and competes as a judo international for Ghana.

Meet Szandra Szogedi – a former University of East London (UEL) student with a complicated back story but a simple mission to bring home a medal when she makes her Olympic debut in Rio next month.

“I would like to pay something back to UEL for always supporting me,” said the 25-year-old, who will be competing in the under-63kg weight division.

“Even though I am no longer studying, I want to send a message to thank the University for everything.

“UEL will always be part of my life. I can never change the memories of my time there. I really enjoyed studying at UEL. If you are high-performance athlete, it really is the best place to go.”

Szandra, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in sports journalism, currently trains at Camberley Judo Club in Surrey but still feels a strong affection for UEL.

While an undergraduate, she suffered the agony of missing out on qualifying for the London Olympics by the narrowest of margins but says the University was unwavering in its help and support.

“Going back to University after the London Olympics, I felt a bit ashamed that I hadn’t qualified,” she said. “I was just so disappointed. But by January 2013 I pulled myself together and started again with a clear page.

“The University continued to support me. Even though I didn’t make it to London 2012, the University never stopped supporting me.”

Szandra, who began her sporting career as a gymnast before switching to judo, was a member of the Hungarian national team but became ineligible for Olympic selection when she moved to the UK for family reasons. Hungarian rules stipulate that athletes must be resident in Hungary to qualify for the national Olympic team.

However, because she is married to a Ghanaian – former judoka Alex Amoako – she was offered an alternative route to Olympic selection by taking out duel Ghanaian citizenship.

Four years ago, she was well on course to qualify for London 2012 in the colours of Ghana when disaster struck.

“The last tournament before the Olympics was the African Championships and I needed to get to the final to go to the Games,” she said.

“I lost my semi-final, so from that moment I knew immediately that I was not going to the Games any more. It was my worst nightmare. I had depression for months.”

Now that she has finally fulfilled her dream of qualifying for the Olympics, Szandra is determined to make the most of her opportunity in Rio.

“Everything is possible,” she said. “At the London Olympics, the results proved that people who were not even expected to win a fight won a medal while past world and Olympic champions lost in the first round because of the pressure.

“I’ve done all the work at my club in Camberley and I don’t feel any pressure. I’m not the favourite in my weight but that means nothing. It all depends on what happens on the day.”

Szandra, who works as a journalist for the European Judo Union when not competing, is one of two UEL alumni who will be in action in Rio.

The other is GB track sprinter Adam Gemili, who graduated in sport and exercise science last year.

They will be joining three current UEL students – swimmer Aimee Willmott, boxer Lawrence Okolie and track sprinter Bianca Williams.