Grace-Esther Mienandi Lahou, the 2028 Games in sight

At 190 centimeters tall, Grâce-Esther Mienandi Lahou generally dominates her opponents

Grace-Esther Mienandi Lahou, the 2028 Games in sight

At 190 centimeters tall, Grâce-Esther Mienandi Lahou generally dominates her opponents. But the most impressive thing about this 18-year-old judoka is her track record and her precocity: champion of France, Europe and the world among cadets in 2022, the young woman achieved an unprecedented hat-trick that year.

However, judo was not the sport for which she was predestined. “I started playing when I was 6 years old, but initially I played basketball because my whole family did it and my mother signed me up,” she says. But I didn't really like it and there used to be a judo trainer in the next room who showed me how the classes were done. That's how I started. »

A lifelong resident of Villepinte (Seine-Saint-Denis), she made her debut with the local club, the Judo Club de Villepinte (JC Villepinte). The love of sport is deeply rooted in the Mienandi Lahou family: the judoka's parents were both high-level basketball players, respectively in Congo and Angola. “I am very proud of my daughter, to see that she is participating in important competitions,” says Ida-Corinne Mienandi Lahou. I tell myself that if Grace-Esther is where she is today, it’s a bit because we opened the way for her. »

An operation and six months in plaster

The year of her hat-trick, the young woman says she experienced a strange feeling, as if her life as a competitor and her “other life”, that of a first grade student, were dissociated. “The thing is, sometimes I forget that I won these titles and then, in class, they say to me: 'But you know, I'm shocked that you're world champion!' And that’s when I remember, when I become aware of what I have achieved. It’s so weird going home after a competition. During tournaments, there are teams, you create bonds, you get attached, it's difficult to separate. »

But the 2022 season also marked a setback for the young girl, who seriously injured her knee during the final of the cadet team world championships, which required her to have an operation and six months in a cast: “ I tried to do an otoshi [technique of throwing the arms forward while blocking with his leg], my opponent tried to lift me, but we were going in opposite directions, my knee gave way and I was fell, she remembers. This was the second time I dislocated my knee. I had to operate because my kneecap was too high: if they didn't lower it, there was a risk of it happening again every time. »

A few months after her recovery, Grace-Esther Mienandi Lahou was injured again: she fell while running and fractured her tibia. In total, she would stay a little over a year without practicing judo. This did not discourage the young woman, who, since September 2023, has slowly returned to training: eight hours a week at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (Insep) in Paris and on Wednesdays at the Red Star Club Montreuil Judo (RSCM Judo), where she has dual membership with JC Villepinte.

The judoka is one of the thirty-five athletes from Seine-Saint-Denis benefiting from the Generation 2024 system, which earned her financial assistance from the department of 3,000 euros. For her, the Paris Olympic Games next summer are coming too soon: it is the Los Angeles Games in 2028 that constitute her big goal.

For the moment, Grace-Esther Mienandi Lahou is slowly returning to competition, with the next deadline being the French junior judo championships, which will take place on March 2 and 3 in Paris. She will compete there in the over 78 kilos category. The change of age category, from cadet to junior, can be complicated, especially when you have been injured for a long time, but that does not destabilize her: "I don't have to change my judo too much, I must deepen it, through more intense training. I feel like it's harder than when I was a cadet, already because I have to get back to the level I was at before I got injured. »

“You have to work explosively.”

Nacer Dahli, his coach at RSCM Judo since September 2023, is not worried either. “She has a lot of room for improvement, that’s what’s interesting about her,” explains this former high-level judoka. The fact that she was injured and had to miss her first year in juniors handicapped her, but she is on the right track. The 2028 Games are of course the objective, but we already know that the competition will be tough in her category, with champions like Romane Dicko, who is still young. »

With her size, Grace-Esther Mienandi Lahou has an undeniable advantage. But his trainer prefers to emphasize the need to get involved in training: “It could be a big advantage, as is the case for Teddy Riner, but it requires a lot of work,” he assures. You have to work on explosiveness, work on the physique, because the heavyweight category can be complicated. When you have a good size, you can have a tendency to rely on what you have learned, and that is what you should definitely not do. »

The young woman would like to become a judo coach and has been following work-study training at Insep since September 2023, in order to obtain a professional certificate in youth, popular education and sport. As part of her work-study program, she trains children aged 4 to 8 in judo clubs.

“The kids I coach asked me if I was a champion at something, so I told them and they didn’t believe me,” she says. They made me laugh because they said to me: “But you’re a brown belt, how can you be world champion?” So I explained to them that it’s not because you’re not yet a black belt that you can’t be world champion. »