How did you end up with karate as your discipline?
Elena Quirici: My mother is a karate teacher and taught the sport to my two older brothers. I started off as the audience. But at some point, the little sister of course wanted to square up to her big brothers and show how strong she is and that she can hold her own against them. And, where necessary, hit back (laughs). At some point, I said that I wanted to join in with the training. Karate has been my passion ever since that day. I used to ride as well but there came a time when I had to pick one sport. It was clear to me straight away that it had to be karate.
Since when have you been dreaming of taking part in the Olympic Games?
Elena Quirici: Actually not that long, as karate will probably only be an Olympic discipline in Tokyo. I remember the London 2012 and Rio 2016 games well; I watched them on TV. I often thought that I’d like to be involved – but that wasn’t possible. But then the decision was made that karate would be part of the competition program in Tokyo and my dream of course came to life immediately. I’ve arranged my whole life around qualifying for Tokyo.
What does representing Switzerland in Tokyo mean to you?
Elena Quirici: I’m incredibly proud that I can represent Switzerland at such a major event. I am also really happy for the Swiss Karate Association to be able to send a woman to the Olympic Games. Especially as it’s probably the first and last time that karate is an Olympic sport. And I’m happy that I can give something back to my family and loved ones. They’re always there for me and have always supported me. Now I can make them proud and we will all be able to experience this once-in-a-lifetime moment.
How has the pandemic influenced your life as a karateka?
Elena Quirici: Karate is a martial art with lots of physical contact. When you can’t fight other karatekas, you quickly lose the feel for timing, distance and reactions. At the beginning, of course, this was a real blow. But I still tried to get a lot of positives out of this extra year. Although it was very, very difficult, especially mentally. I never knew if qualification would go ahead – and when. This uncertainty left me anxious for a long time, with my head and my body unable to fully relax. And inner calm is of the utmost importance in karate.
But you still look back on the extra year positively now?
Elena Quirici: Yes, I’m mentally stronger than I was a year ago for sure. And I’ve learned that you should always keep your eye on the prize even in uncertain situations like a global pandemic. Things will be alright in the end, even if it doesn’t seem like it to begin with. As I said, that’s my experience of 2020.
There will be no Swiss fans at the stadium in Tokyo. Will you miss the support?
Elena Quirici: All tournaments have been audience-free from the first lockdown. This was a completely new situation, especially at the beginning. Suddenly, the hall just had two fighters, the mat, a referee and a couple of officials. Especially in a martial art, you suddenly hear everything: your opponent’s breath and your coach’s every word. It’s different with a crowd. But I got used to this new situation through the qualification matches. Of course, the fight itself isn’t any different but it’s a shame that there won’t be any fans there. But in the end, I’m going there to fulfil my dream of a medal. And I can always feel all the support from my people, my fans and my family from Switzerland at any tournament.
You got into karate through your family. Do you have any other sporting role models?
Elena Quirici: I had and still have a lot of role models that inspire me. I always look to other athletes for inspiring traits, creating my personal role model. They’re not always other karatekas either. Lots of them are from the world of gymnastics. It’s not to do with karate directly. But I have lots of role models in that field that inspire me.
Have you imagined what the podium ceremony would be like?
Elena Quirici: Of course! I’m going to Tokyo to win and want to come home with a medal. That’s my goal and what I’ve been working towards for years. Especially as karate has never been an Olympic discipline before. When I see gymnast Simone Biles, for example, on the podium, I think, “wow, what if I was standing up there?” It motivates me even more. I want to get the Swiss flag as high up on the podium as possible.
You’ve been completely focused on Tokyo for the last few years. Do you have any plans or dreams for afterwards?
Elena Quirici: Planning projects and coming up with plans have been more difficult thanks to the pandemic. For everyone, not just me. But at the moment, I’m completely focused on Tokyo and I’m enjoying every moment of this unique opportunity. Of course, I have thought a little about what to do after Tokyo. But I will live my dream first. Everything else can wait.