Prague, Czech Republic (CNN)The Czech Republic’s first ever Olympic judo champion was already plotting his next move before he’d removed the gold medal from around his neck.
Victory in the half heavyweight (90-100kg) category at Rio 2016 had been “the most beautiful moment” of his whole career. But it wasn’t enough. Instead Lukas Krpalek’s journey was just beginning. And, not content with reaching the pinnacle of his sport aged 25, he resolved to step up a weight division in a bid to win all new honors. Standing in his way is a man who hasn’t lost for almost a decade. “One of my great motivations was to get new medals,” Krpalek tells CNN Sport, “but it was also a chance to face Teddy Riner on the mat.” Photos: Lukas KrpalekOlympic champion – Lukas Krpalek won every major honor on offer in judo’s 90-100kg category… Now he’s stepped up to the heavyweight division. Hide Caption 1 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekRio 2016 Olympics – “My three biggest results are gold from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the 2014 World title in Chelyabinsk and the 2013 European Championship title in Budapest,” Krpalek tells CNN. Hide Caption 2 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekJunior World Championships 2008 – Incredibly, the Czech Republic’s first ever Olympic judo champion only took up the sport by chance — initially presuming the martial arts lessons he was receiving as a child were karate. Hide Caption 3 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekJunior European Championships 2008 – “My brother and I kept going for about a month until we found out that it wasn’t karate, but judo,” he laughs. “My uncle got the time wrong! Thank God he made that mistake.”Hide Caption 4 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekTokyo 2010 World Championships – Krpalek could also have grown up to be an ice hockey player, had things worked out differently. “As a little boy I would spend crazy amounts of time on the ice,” he smiles. “Whenever the pond froze over in winter, we would go out with the boys. After school, I always dropped my backpack, picked up my skates, hockey stick, and ran to the pond. It was something wonderful.”Hide Caption 5 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekParis 2011 World Championships – Krpalek’s family didn’t have enough money to fund his ice hockey dream, but the Czech continued honing his skills on the tatami. And in 2011, he won bronze at the Paris World Championships — his country’s first medal of any color at that level since its declaration of independence. Hide Caption 6 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekBudapest 2013 European Championships – Of all the prestigious medals Krpalek has won, he says it was a 2006 European Cadets Championship silver that gave him cause to believe he could reach the upper echelons of the sport. Seven years later in Budapest, he won the senior European title.Hide Caption 7 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekParis Grand Slam 2013 – Further medals followed in quick succession, from the Paris Grand Slam in front of a partisan French crowd…Hide Caption 8 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekTokyo Grand Slam 2013 – …To the Tokyo Grand Slam, secured in the birthplace of the sport.Hide Caption 9 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekChelyabinsk 2014 World Championships – In 2014, Krpalek became world champion in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.Hide Caption 10 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekRio 2016 Opening Ceremony – Everything pointed towards the Rio 2016 Olympics, where Krpalek had the honor of being his country’s flagbearer. “It was a huge honor for me, but on the other hand it was a huge commitment to carry the flag,” he says, noting “suddenly here in Czechia everyone was interested in how I’d fight and what I’d show.”Hide Caption 11 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekRio 2016 Olympics – He certainly lived up to the billing, defeating Azerbaijani Elmar Gasimov by ippon for gold in the final. “This was the most beautiful moment in the whole of my sports career,” says Krpalek. “I must say that it took me a really long time to realize that I actually succeeded, that I had been able to go through the tournament as the winner.” Hide Caption 12 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekRio 2016 Olympics – Just months before the Games begun, Krpalek’s teammate Alexandr Jurečka died in a diving accident aged 24. Rocked by the death of one of his closest friends, Krpalek had vowed to fight in Jurečka’s honor. “Anytime anyone needed help, he was the first one who came,” said Krpalek, later holding up a picture of his departed compatriot on the podium. “We will try to achieve the goals which you always wanted to reach, but destiny did not allow you.”Hide Caption 13 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekTokyo Grand Slam 2017 – No sooner had Krpalek won Olympic gold than he was plotting his next move: a tilt at the heavyweight (100kg+) titles, and an inevitable showdown with ten-time world champion Teddy Riner. At the 2017 Tokyo Grand Slam, Krpalek won silver in Riner’s absence. Hide Caption 14 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekTokyo Grand Slam 2017 – The Czech was eventually beaten by home favorite Yusei Ogawa — but only after a whopping 14 minutes of golden score. “It was my first competition in a long time since injury,” says Krpalek. “Of course I regret I couldn’t pull off victory having been out there for so long, but it’s sport. You win some, you lose some.”Hide Caption 15 of 16 Photos: Lukas KrpalekParis Grand Slam 2018 – The 27-year-old earned bronze against the sport’s heaviest men in the first major tournament of 2018, but wants to show more ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games. “I definitely don’t want these medals to be my last,” Krpalek says. “I’d like to try and keep fighting for as long as possible.Hide Caption 16 of 16Read MoreThere can be fewer greater challenges, in any sport. Riner, a double Olympic heavyweight champion, has won 144 consecutive matches in an unbeaten streak stretching back to 2010. He is, in the words of Krpalek, “an extraodinary judoka.””This is a man who was able to rewrite history — who was able to win the World Championship 10 times,” says the Czech. “Riner has it all worked out, physically and technically. He has no real weaknesses. But definitely I would like to take him on, and try to defeat him.”Krpalek leads a pack of pretenders to Riner’s throne alongside 2018 Paris Grand Slam winner Kokomo Kageura and explosive Georgian youngster, Guram Tushishvili. To date, Krpalek and Riner have fought “several” times in randori — a sort of freestyle practice — but never in a competitive environment.Fate has thus far kept them apart, preventing judo’s answer to “The Rumble in the Jungle“. Krpalek missed the 2017 Judo World Championships through injury, while Riner opted not to compete in February’s Paris Grand Slam on home soil.But an eventual clash of the titans feels inevitable. It will be the first time in the history of the sport that two men with gold back patches — awarded to reigning Olympic champions — have stepped onto the mat together.READ: Teenage kicks at Paris Grand Slam spectacularA close friend’s departureKrpalek’s grand ambition will not let him forget his past.Every time the 27-year-old takes to the tatami, he fights with the strength of two men, and with a close friend in his heart. Just months before the Games began, Krpalek’s Czech teammate Alexandr Jurečka died in a diving accident. He was just 24 years old. Rocked by the news, Krpalek released an emotional statement vowing to fight on in Jurečka’s honor.”Anytime anyone needed help, Alexandr was the first one who came,” he said. “We will try to achieve the goals which you always wanted to reach, but destiny did not allow you.”It was Jurečka’s photo that the Rio 2016 half-heavyweight champion held aloft on the podium that golden August day, after defeating world No. 1 Cyrille Maret in the last four and finally Azerbaijan’s Elmar Gasimov for the title. “In the last two matches I thought so strongly about my friend,” Krpalek said, struggling to hold back the tears. “I can’t lose the match. I had his picture with me all the time.”READ: “Never be satisfied, the battle will always continue” — Kosei InoueA hero’s welcomeIt took him a long time to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement.”When I came back home from the Olympics, it was something that you can’t imagine,” he smiles.Tens of thousands flocked to Lipno Lake to welcome the Czech Republic’s Olympic heroes — among which stood their country’s first ever judo gold medalist.
Olympic Park at Lipno Record attendance (32,000 people) when the Park visited Lukas Krpalek #Rio2016 #europeanjudo pic.twitter.com/AGHwqSMl1L
— Czech Judo Fed. (@czechjudo) August 19, 2016 A three-hour drive away in Jihlava, where Krpalek grew up, it was as if the prodigal son had returned.”This was something I won’t forget as long as I live,” he says. “As a boy, I used to walk through Jihlava square to school every day; suddenly, I was standing there as the main attraction, with all of Jihlava having come to welcome me.”It was such a wonderful experience. I will never get it out of my head.” Carrying the Czech flag at the opening ceremony was both a “huge honor” and a “huge commitment,” according to Krpalek. “Everyone here in Czechia was interested in how I’d fight and what I’d show.”Krpalek still watches the Olympic matches back from time to time, “recalling that day, the Olympic day.”But even before Rio 2016, Krpalek had a sense his time in the half-heavyweight category was coming to an end.READ: “Judo gives us hope in this fragile world” – Yasuhiro YamashitaA new challengeStanding almost two meters tall and naturally heavy-set, Krpalek spent years shedding pounds to make the weight ahead of competition weekends — a routine he didn’t deem healthy.”Even if I had lost at the Olympics in round one, I knew the change would come one day,” he shrugs. “In the under 100kg category, I used to drop many kilos, and I don’t think it’s very healthy to be losing weight throughout one’s career, just to fit into some category.”The bronze medal won by Krpalek at the 2011 Paris World Championships was the first of any color a Czech fighter had won at that level since the nation’s independence in 1993.Besides, in the half heavyweight division (90-100kg), Krpalek had already won everything there was to win, “be it from Europe, the world or from the Olympics.”This was a chance to explore, and conquer, all new territory.Legends of Judo: Lukas Krpalek
Paris Grand Slam 2018: Bronze (+100kg)
Tokyo Grand Slam 2018: Silver (+100kg)
Rio 2016 Olympic Games: Gold (-100kg)
Chelyabinsk 2014 World Championship: Gold (-100kg)
Montpellier 2014 European Championship: Gold (-100kg)
Tokyo Grand Slam 2014: Gold (-100kg)
Paris Grand Slam 2013: Gold (-100kg)
Paris 2011 World Championships: Bronze (-100kg)
“For me, it is a huge motivation to achieve something else; to try something new in another weight category,” Krpalek explains.”I know it’s going to be extremely hard — I am new in this division — but I believe that if you work hard in training, you can achieve anything.”Krpalek has already successfully seen off several judo giants since, notably Romania’s Daniel Natea (183kg). Still, stepping onto the tatami with the sport’s heaviest men — some of which have been known to tip the scales at over 200kg — is a “very different” challenge.”This weight category is more about sheer power,” Krpalek explains. “It’s not as technical, it’s not as dynamic or as fast, but great strength dominates here.”Certainly I would like to gain a few kilos, but it’s not as important for me as the strength that I would like to gain.”Krpalek is still adapting to the 100kg+ category, and was defeated at the Paris Grand Slam by South Korea’s Sungmin Kim.Now around 115kg, Krpalek anticipates he’ll reach his peak at 120kg. Bulk up too much, and the Czech fighter would sacrifice his secret weapon: stamina.One Czech Judo Federation official privately believes Krpalek would also thrive in cross country skiing, such is the fighter’s capacity for endurance.He’ll need to summon all his energies if he’s to fulfill his ultimate ambition: taking down the six-foot-eight, 141-kilogram Riner.READ: Legends of Judo — Mongolian icon Tüvshinbayar NaidanAn idol and inspirationIn his bid to make the step up, Krpalek takes inspiration from retired Japanese great Kosei Inoue, who similarly fought in both divisions.”He is a judoka who achieved outstanding results and one of the best technically in the history of the sport,” says Krpalek, calling Inoue “a huge role model.”JUST WATCHEDLegends of judo: Kosei InoueReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Legends of judo: Kosei Inoue 01:12″It was wonderful to watch his matches, but not only is he an excellent judoka, I also feel that he is an excellent person too.”Krpalek, himself a gentle giant off the mat, is reminded of a particular tournament attended by the Japanese contingent in Prague. Long after the competition had come to an end, one man remained on the tatami.
Not only was I inspired by Kosei Inoue's results, I was also inspired by his life.
“The tournament was over but Inoue was still there, cleaning up mess on the mat that the others had left,” Krpalek recalls. “So I said to myself that this wasn’t just anybody.”Not only was I inspired by his results, I was also inspired by his life.”Kosei Inoue lost his mother aged just 21, famously clutching a framed photograph of her as he stood atop the podium at Sydney 2000 a year later.Krpalek can also take inspiration from the fact Inoue managed to win prestigious events such as the Tournoi de Paris and All Japan Judo Championships as a lighter competitor. “I definitely don’t want these medals to my last,” the 27-year-old says. “I’d like to try and keep fighting for as long as possible.Can Lukas Krpalek beat 10-time world champion Teddy Riner? Have your say on CNN sport’s Facebook page or TwitterVisit CNN.com/judo for more news and features“Should health permit, I definitely want to participate at the Tokyo 2020 Games. For us judoka, I think it will be the best possible Olympics. Judo will be in the country where it was first created and I think it could be something wonderful. “There are more medals to come.”