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Watch: Esposito strikes gold as Zahra fights back to take silver

Katryna Esposito (top) won Malta’s first gold medal at the 2023 GSSE. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Judo handed Malta its first medals of the 2023 Games of the Small States of Europe as Katryna Esposito struck gold in the -48kg category while a battling James Zahra secured silver in the -60kg class.

Malta’s number of medals on the first day doubled in the afternoon session when Isaac Bezzina and Valerian Ogbaidze added bronze medals in the -100kg and -90kg classes to ensure Malta end the day with one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals.

Competing at her second GSSE, Esposito was determined to go all the way this time around and the Commonwealth Games bronze medallist started strongly when she overpowered team-mate Kirsty Cauchi.

Esposito had two Cypriot judokas standing in her way to a gold medal – Marina Kyprianou and Veronika Kalaitsidou.

Katryna Esposito speaks to the Times of Malta after her success in GSSE 2023. Video: Matthew Mirabelli

First up for Esposito was Kyprianou and the Maltese judo looked focused right from the outset and her aggressive approach was too much for the Cypriot who was forced to submission with Esposito handing the win by an Ippon.

Kalaitsidou was up next and Esposito had a much tougher fight on her hand as the Cyprus judoka tried to withstand the Maltese judoka’s attacks. But as time passed Esposito grew in stature and Kalaitsidou was penalised three times to lose the bout on hansoku make, to the delight of the home crowd.

“I’m feeling very excited at the moment,” Esposito said.

“Winning the gold medal was always my dream and to do it in front of the Maltese crowd and my family makes it even more special and I am glad that all the hard work that I have put in has produced this result.”

Asked what spurred her aggressive approach throughout the tournament, Esposito said: “There is always where to improve after every bout. But this morning I woke up with a goal in my mind and I am so happy to have done it.”

The GSSE gold medal is the latest success for Esposito who won bronze in the Commonwealth Games last year as well as two third-placings in World Opens in Tunisia and Algeria.

But Esposito is still hungry for more.

“I want to keep on working on my technique and will prepare for the European Championships, scheduled for this summer. Then I will try to pick up as many points as possible so that I can qualify for the Olympic Games in Paris next year.”

Katryna Esposito battles one of her opponents at the GSSE 2023. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Zahra was somewhat the surprise of the day for Team Malta as he showed great resilience to clinch the silver medal in the -60kg category.

After defeating his team-mate Sadek Khalef in the first bout he lost a close second bout against Cypriot Petro Christodoulides but then bounced back in style as managed to overcome Liechtenstein fighter Manuel Tischhauser.

“I’m feeling a bit of mixed emotions, honestly,” Zahra said.

“It’s great to have won the silver medal but I am a bit disappointed not have brought home the gold medal. But I lost against a very strong Cypriot judoka and luckily I managed to regroup and finish the job against Manuel.

“No doubt this result is a huge injection of confidence as it shows that I know how to fight and will give me the motivation to work harder so that I can achieve more prestigious international results against stronger opponents.”

James Zahra (left) holds off his opponent at the GSSE 2023. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

In the afternoon session, Isaac Bezzina and Valerian Ogbaidze added two more bronze medals to team Malta’s tally.
In a hard-fought third place play-off Bezzina took third place in the -100kgs with an ippon (three chidos) over Franck Vatan of Monaco.

In -90kg category, Valerian Ogbaidze was awarded a bronze medal after walk over by Nicolas Grinda of Monaco.

Jessica Zannoni of San Marino took just over two minutes to beat Francesca Catania with an ippon decision to win the bronze medal in the female’s -70kg category.

Follow our live GSSE blog covering all the sports involved here…

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