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Fiery judoka Monteiro is Portugal's best hope

Falling out of trees and sliding down stairs on old window blinds are more than a warm childhood memory for Portugal's best female judoka, they shaped Telma Monteiro into her nation's top medal hope at the London Olympics.

With both of Portugal's Beijing medal winners missing after triathlon silver medalist Vanessa Fernandes ruled herself out and men's triple jump champion Nelson Evora suffered a leg injury, all eyes are on Monteiro.

She is snappy about it.

"I can't escape being favorite, I am the world's number two, and won pretty much everything over the last year. I will be top seed, there is no escape," Monteiro told Reuters before one of her daily practice sessions in Lisbon.

Portugal will also probably be without sprinter Francis Obikwelu and long jump specialist Naide Gomes, who are both injured.

"I feel sorry for those who won't be there but I see it as motivation," Monteiro said.

At 26, Monteiro has won four European championships, the last one in April in Russia's Chelyabinsk, and came second three times in the world championships, the most important judo competition after the Olympics.

Still, she failed to claim a medal at the last two Games, finishing ninth both in Beijing and Athens.

"Third time is a charm," said the easygoing Monteiro, who competes in the under 57kg category and is about 1.70 meters high.

"In 2008, I was also the favorite to be Olympic champion and ended ninth but now I have the experience and maturity to deal with this kind of pressure."

Even on a festive warm summer evening, as most of Lisbon geared up for a night of grilled sardines and folk dancing in honor of the city's patron, Monteiro was fully absorbed in her daily ritual together with the national team.

She distributed judo moves at will in her white crisp kimono, saying that a slight elbow injury, revealed by a bandage, was nothing to worry about.

"I know I can beat anyone," she said.

Despite the buoyant attitude, Monteiro was shrewd and tactical in her answers, not wanting to name her top rivals, besides the obvious world number one, Japanese Kaori Matsumoto.

"If I was told I was a major opponent to be beaten, that would boost my confidence and I don't want to give that to anyone. I practiced athletics and football before turning to judo and, even while growing up, playing on the streets, I couldn't stand losing."

FEARED OPPONENT

Determination and consistency are the most heard adjectives to describe her from fellow athletes and coaches.

"She is the most feared opponent. Again the favorite in the Olympics but now with four more years of work behind her and much more maturity," said her coach Rui Rosa.

Monteiro may have matured but she says her childhood was key.

"I climbed trees, jumped off walls and had a quite a few accidents. I wounded my head lots of times, fell off from basketball hoops, picked up throw-away blinds and slid down flights of stairs.

"All this turned me into a very adaptable athlete. Kids these days are over protected, I wasn't."

Her point comes across when you see Monteiro ably dodging one of the many concrete pillars that dangerously lie across the training room, turning as she falls down on the mat after a judo move.

"The conditions are not ideal, I wish we had air conditioning and no columns in the middle of the training area. Still, we manage to achieve results," said Filipe Ferreira, a national judo federation member.

"The club where Telma started did not have great conditions and she triumphed anyway," he said.

Monteiro's top moves are the Sode, a throw where she grabs her opponent's sleeve and twists them in the air, and the Ippon Seoinage shoulder grab.

Ferreira proudly observes Monteiro perfect her art, his smile hiding some concern over financial cuts to judo amid Portugal's economic crisis.

"We had a big budget cut in government financing last year, more than 10 percent to 1.3 million euros ($1.64 million). This year the budget cut was 1.5 percent," he said.

The cuts are most felt at the level of second-tier athletes who are not taken to international competitions as often.

Portugal has 12,000 practicing judo athletes.

"It is dramatic, sometimes athletes' parents come to me and ask why we can't take them after all their hard work and I just say: 'we can't'. It is like choosing between two sons," said Ferreira. ($1 = 0.7949 euros)

(Editing by Alison Wildey)