Judo champion Peter Paltchik discusses his career and how he learned to push beyond his limits.

Ranking judo champion Peter Paltchik is so dedicated to the competitive sport that he put off his honeymoon in 2016 to train after a devastating injury during a competition. “I was very hungry to succeed, and I was hungry in every practice, in every training, every day,” he said. That drive paid off. In 2018, Paltchik took the bronze medal in the European Judo Championship in Tel Aviv and captured the gold at the International Judo Federation Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi.

Now, the 27-year-old has his sights set on a lifelong dream of qualifying for the Olympics. Paltchik, who was born in Russia and raised in Israel, exemplifies what it means to overcome adversity and push beyond limits — a lesson that is inspiring to business leaders as well as athletes. He spoke to Knowledge at Wharton about why he believes that “excellence is everything.” (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: How did you get interested in judo?

Peter Paltchik: It’s an interesting question, and it starts very early. When I was born in Crimea, Russia, I was 12 pounds. I was a very, very big baby. The birth was very, very difficult for me and also for my mom. She went 54 hours in the birth room. At some point, the doctors started to save her and not me.

I was born with a lot of deficiencies in my body, a lot of bones that weren’t healthy. Almost all the doctors gave up right away and said, “We don’t want to treat this baby.” But my grandfather was a well-known man in the town — it was a small town. I should mention that my grandfather’s name is Peter. I was named after him. One doctor came to my grandfather and said, “Give me this baby. I will fix him.”

My grandfather was driving in the winter in Russia, into the mountains, to this doctor every day to fix me up. After several months, I became healthy, and the doctor said, “It’s not finished yet, because this baby should do sports. And if you can, even fighting sports to build him up and make him stronger. This is the way you can continue to build his health.”

I came to Israel with my mom alone. After two years, my grandfather and grandmother came also. My grandfather took me to the nearest judo center, and I was in love with this magical sport right away. So, this is the beginning story.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was it about judo that attracted you, especially as a child?

Paltchik: I was a very energetic child, and I was very big. I was strong and didn’t know what to do with myself, with my energy and with my power. Judo helped me to motivate myself and to put all the energy and all my power and all my specialties to judo. It gave me a centering. Right away, I knew I was good at it, and I was able to do a lot of strong techniques that other kids can’t do. I knew right away that this is my path in life.

Knowledge at Wharton: Did you play any other sports?

Paltchik: My grandfather didn’t let me do it. He was an officer in the Russian submarine navy, so he was and still is a very, very tough man. Everything he taught me was how to be tough and how to be strong in life. He always said that life is not going to be easy. My grandfather always taught me that I should be professional in one thing and be the best at it. And that’s what I did. He didn’t let me do anything else — no different sports — only judo. When he was at home, he tried to coach me. When I was home and not playing with my friends, I was training with my grandfather.

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think judo taught you, and how did it change you?

Paltchik: I think judo built my character because judo has a lot of values. It has mutual respect because you are always training with someone, with a partner. I can tell you that one of the first things you do when you come to the judo center — we call it the dojo in Japanese because in the trainings, we speak Japanese. The Japanese invented judo 100 years ago, so all around the world, people talk Japanese in the trainings. When we come to the dojo, first we bow. We bow to the mat we step on in the training. Then we bow to the coach in the beginning of the training. When we start training with the partners and start to throw each other, before the fight we bow, and after the fight we bow. When we finish, you bow again to the coach, again to the mat when we’re leaving. Everything about judo is about mutual respect, and this is the thing I love the most.

Knowledge at Wharton: You were seriously injured a few years ago. How did that affect your involvement with the sport?

Paltchik: I can tell you about two big injuries that I had. The two of them are unique because each one of them taught me a lot about myself. In 2011, I got my first big medal in the world ranking. I got the silver medal in the European Championship under the age of 21. I was second in the world ranking under the age of 21, and I thought I was invincible. Until one time in one training, I fell on my knee very, very badly from a very high place, and I hurt my knee. It was so bad that my injury was very rare. None of the doctors who looked at me wanted to [perform] surgery.

I got to the one doctor who agreed to do the surgery. It was a very difficult surgery, and the rehabilitation was one and a half years. Immediately after the surgery, I had to question myself if I should keep going with this sport. I started to work jobs like a teacher in the schools of young kids. I was helping them with homework and stuff. I started to coach young kids in judo. I started to work as a barkeeper in the nights. This was one of the most difficult things for me. I didn’t see how I could come back to judo.

“My grandfather took me to the nearest judo center, and I was in love with this magical sport right away.”

After almost two and a half years, I felt like I was stuck in one place. And one night, in one very special night shift in the bar, I saw in front of my eyes my national coach, Oren Samadja. He looked at me and said, “Peter, what are you doing in the bar?” And I said, “What are you doing here?” My coach was not living then close to me, so he shouldn’t even have been there.

He said to me, “Peter, you should leave everything — all your jobs, all your side jobs — you should leave them and come back to the team. Come back to the national team because you have the potential to be an Olympic champion.” After a couple of minutes of talk, he left. I was back home after several hours of work, and at 4 in the morning, I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about this conversation. I decided I’m going back to the national team. I’m going back to chasing the dream of being an Olympic champion.

In December 2015, I was competing in the China Grand Prix. In the quarter-finals, I was fighting against a Mongolian guy. He was a very tough and difficult athlete to fight because he was an Olympic champion. He is very strong. This guy made a very dangerous move, a very dangerous technique on my shoulder. I should have fallen on my back and left the fight. But my thinking was to win this match against him and not to fall on my back, so I moved to the other side. Because I moved to the other side and not to the side I should fall, my shoulder went out. It was dislocated immediately. I was out of the competition, and I was lying on my back looking up to the light, and I said to myself, “There’s no Olympic games for me.” I knew it was a very serious injury. When I got home to Israel, the doctors checked me. They said, “You must do surgery.”

The doctors did the surgery, and then I went through nine months of rehabilitation. I realized the Olympics were done for me. I took these nine months of rehabilitation as a rebirth. This is the point when I started to call myself “the real Peter,” because I said to myself, “I’m not giving up. I’m not giving up on my goal. I’m not giving up on my dream.” I decided to be an Olympic champion and nothing will stop me. I came back to rehabilitation, and I was so committed to the process. Three months after the surgery, I was married. My wife said to me, “Let’s go on our honeymoon.” I said, “Listen, there is no honeymoon. I’m not missing even one training, even one day of physiotherapy and training. Even one day I’m not going to miss.”

This was the moment when the new Peter was born, and I was sure I was very committed to the process. When I finished the 2016 year of rehabilitation, I came into 2017 and I started to win every competition I went to. I was very hungry to succeed, and I was hungry in every practice, in every training, every day. This thing motivates me every day since then.

Knowledge at Wharton: On the one hand, judo is a very solitary sport because it’s you and your opponent on the mat. On the other hand, you also have a team. How do you balance between the individual nature of the sport and the teamwork?

“Everything about judo is about mutual respect, and this is the thing I love the most.”

Paltchik: That’s a good question because after everything, after all the trainings and the things you do before the competition, in the end you are fighting alone against an opponent who comes in front of you. But in the trainings, you always train with a partner. You can’t train alone. There is also a team playing, so you must have a good connection with a team, with a good energy always, playing with others in the trainings every day. It’s a very complicated sport.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the lessons that people can learn about teamwork from judo that may be applied to the world of business?

Paltchik: I think there are a lot of good things that connect to the business world that can be learned from judo. The special one is to be committed to yourself, to be self-confident. At the end of the day, when you’re lying on your bed and you think of what you did, you must tell yourself that you did everything to be better today, to be better tomorrow, a better version of yourself. This is the main thing I’m trying to do. I’m trying to work with myself every day, and I’m trying to do better than I did yesterday.

Knowledge at Wharton:  Do you see yourself as a leader? Do you need leadership skills to be part of the judo team?

Paltchik: Of course. There is a professional leader of the team, and this is the coach of the team. But I think I’m the leader of myself because no one can push me to work hard on the trainings. Only I can push myself.  As I said, I must be the leader of myself. I must wake myself in the morning and be very motivated.

Knowledge at Wharton: How do you keep yourself motivated?

Paltchik: I think of all the complex things that I have been cured of all of my life. I think this is a big motivation for me because I know I have a goal, and all my life I was heading to this goal, to this dream. The days are passing, and I’m getting closer to my goal. I understand that it’s not a dream anymore. It’s a target, and I’m going to make it to the best. These things are very motivating to me. I try to wake up every day with a high level of energy and to affect my training partners to work hard. This is teamwork.

Knowledge at Wharton: What has been your biggest challenge?

Paltchik:  You must train hard and work hard, but do it with efficiency, with a lot of thinking. To work smart is very difficult because you want to push yourself to the limit, but when you pass this limit, it can cause problems with injuries that can lead to a lot of time wasted. So, I think my biggest challenge is to keep pushing myself to the limit, but with a lot of responsibility. It’s a very difficult thing to do.

Knowledge at Wharton: What’s your biggest career regret?

Paltchik: Wow, this is the first time that someone asked me this. I can think of one moment: the first big injury on my knee. I regret that I didn’t come back to the national team sooner. You know, I can’t say that I regret that. I believe that everything is for the good. All the things that I’ve been through led to the moment I am right now. So, I think I am complete with everything I did.

Knowledge at Wharton: What have you learned from your setbacks?

Paltchik: I learned that sometimes I must let go. I’m always trying to build, and I’m always trying to fight to the end. But my last injury taught me that sometimes you have to let go because there is no other option.

Knowledge at Wharton: What does excellence mean to you?

Paltchik: Excellence is everything. I think every time we approach something, we should do it with excellence. This is the thing my grandfather was teaching me when I was young. Every time I’m doing something, I should do it perfect. This is the way I am training. I think this is like a motivation to everybody — not to only athletes in judo and other athletes. Every man and woman should be in pursuit of excellence in every aspect of their life.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was the highest point in your career as a judoka?

“Excellence is everything. I think every time we approach something, we should do it with excellence.”

Paltchik: The European Championship medal is my highest point in my career because professionally it means that I’ve succeeded to make a medal in my target championship. But I should tell you about one competition that changed me as a man and as an athlete in my country. It was last year’s Grand Slam of Abu Dhabi. An Israeli cannot go to Abu Dhabi because it’s an Arab country and we don’t have political relationships with them. Getting inside Abu Dhabi every year to do this competition is a very, very difficult thing. After all the security problems and political problems, eventually we found a way inside the country.

You are not allowed to film the competition because you have heavy security. They did not allow us to walk away from the hotel, so the whole team was only inside the hotel and back to the competition. These were the only two places you were allowed to be. When the day comes and I should go out on the mat and compete, there’s a lot of pressure. I’m feeling from the media, from my family and from all my country that I was in a special competition. I managed to win the gold medal.

This was a very, very special moment because I can tell you that every time I’m winning the gold medal anywhere in the world, I’m very proud of it and very emotional about it. But in Abu Dhabi, it was much, much better because I felt that sports wins over politics.

Knowledge at Wharton: How do you define success?

Paltchik: If I can do now something that I couldn’t have done before, I think this is success. It can be on every level of your life, not only sports or business. Always trying to do something that you couldn’t have done before, I think this is success.