(Colorado Springs, Colo.) - Team USA arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Tuesday and Wednesday to compete in the first Pan American Championships of the new Olympic quadrennium.
Sixteen athletes will compete in the shiai competition that begins Thursday and continues on Friday. A team competition also will be held on Saturday.
Team USA features a mix of first-time players as well as athletes who have competed on previous Olympic and Pan Am Teams.
Due to the movement of the Pan Ams from May to March, the athletes were selected based on the USA Judo Senior Elite National Roster as of Feb. 16 with the #1 ranked athlete in each division receiving an invitation to compete in the Pan Ams.
"This will be a first-time experience for many members of this Team, but this will be a great opportunity for some of our younger athletes to fight against many of the best players in the world," said Eddie Liddie (Colorado Springs, Colo.) "The race is on for London and the sooner our rookie players can experience these high levels of competition, the better off they'll be in the long run."
Among the Team veterans are 2008 U.S. Olympic Team members Travis Stevens (81kg) and Daniel McCormick (+100kg). Both players train in Wakefield, Mass. through the USA Judo National Team FORCE program and the New York Athletic Club and each placed ninth in his respective division in Beijing.
A bronze medalist at the 2007 Pan Ams, Garry St. Leger (Brooklyn, N.Y. / NYAC / Legrosports Starrett) will be competing on his fourth Pan Am Team in the 90kg division.
Competing in the non-Olympic 44kg division, 17-year-old Taylor Ibera (Honolulu, Hawaii / Hawaii Tenri) will be returning to defend her gold medal from the 2008 Pan American Championships.
Ibera's Hawaii Tenri teammate Melinda Swanson (Honolulu, Hawaii) also competed at the 2008 event where she placed fifth in the Open division. This time around, Swanson will be doing double duty as she will fight as both a +78kg and Open weight player.
The Team will be coached by Bert Mackey (Edmonds, Wash.) and Derrick Kerr (Honolulu, Hawaii).
U.S. referees for the event will be Sharon Lanstreet (Centreville, Va.), David Williams (San Jose, Calif.) and David Smith (Atlanta, Ind.)
Competition schedule is as follows:
Thursday March 26
Men's 81kg, 90kg, 100kg and +100kg
Women's 63kg, 70kg, 78kg and +78kg
Friday March 27
Men's 55kg, 60kg, 66kg, 73kg and Open
Women's 44kg, 48kg, 52kg, 57kg and Open
A complete look at the Team is as follows:
Taylor Ibera (Honolulu, Hawaii / Hawaii Tenri)
Seventeen-year-old Ibera first came on to the USA Judo scene in 2006 as one of the top-ranked juniors in the nation. By October of that year she won her first major senior tournament at the U.S. Open which she followed with back-to-back Senior National titles in 2007 and 2008. Last year, Ibera began competing in the 48kg division as well where she has already shown early success at both the junior and senior levels.
Natalie Lafon (Glenville, N.Y. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Jason Morris Judo Center)
A first-time Senior Pan Am Team member, Lafon competed as a junior player, but quit as a teenager to focus on soccer where she was a standout player in Southern California. At 24, Lafon returned to elite competition and won a silver medal at the National Championships in her first major tournament in the 52kg division in 2005. In 2007, Lafon moved down to the 48kg division and had quick success, moving up to a top-four ranking within three months. Last year, Lafon defeated seven-time National Champion Sayaka Matsumoto (El Cerrito, Calif. / NYAC / East Bay Judo Institute) to win her first Senior National title.
Kayla Chappell (Oklahoma City, Okla. / USA Stars)
Sixteen-year-old Chappell broke through in the senior divisions in October when she won the U.S. Open - her first medal at a major senior competition. Now the top-ranked 52kg player in the nation, Chappell looks forward to her first experience as a member of Team USA in Buenos Aires.
Angelica Delgado (Miami, Fla. / USA Judo National Training Site at North Miami)
Although Delgado will be competing on her first Senior Pan Am Team, the 18-year-old is a veteran of Junior Pan Am Teams as a four-time medalist at the junior levels. After advancing to the finals of the USA Judo Senior National Championships for the first time in 2008, Delgado climbed to the #1 ranking after top-five finishes at the U.S. and Sweden Opens and a bronze medal at the Finnish Open last fall.
Christal Ransom (Colorado Springs, Colo. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Olympic Training Center)
A two-time Senior National medalist as a 57kg player, Ransom took a break from major competition after the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. When she returned in 2007, however, she moved up to the 63kg division where she would go on to win the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Judo. Unfortunately, the United States had fallen just short of qualifying to send a representative to the Olympic Games in the division, but Ransom has set her sights on the London Games and moved up to the #1 ranking in the United States after winning her first B-Level bronze medal at the U.S. Open in October.
Katie Sell (Colorado Springs, Colo. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Olympic Training Center)
After being ranked behind 2008 Olympic medalist Ronda Rousey (Santa Monica, Calif. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE) for much of the past two years, Sell will have her first opportunity to compete as a member of Team USA in Buenos Aires as Rousey is taking a break from competition. A four-time Senior National medalist, Sell won bronze medals at the U.S. Open in 2007 and 2008.
Suzie Rizek (Naperville, Ill. / Fox Valley Judo & Jujitsu)
The oldest member of Team USA, 30-year-old Rizek surprised many with her bronze medal win at the 2008 U.S. Open that catapulted her into the #3 ranking in the United States. After #1-ranked Nina Cutro-Kelly (San Antonio, Texas / Universal Judo) and Junior World Champion Kayla Harrison (Wakefield, Mass. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE) declined to compete for personal reasons, Rizek accepted the invitation. Although new to major competition, Rizek fought on the World Tour earlier this season.
Women's +78kg and Open
Melinda Swanson (Honolulu, Hawaii / Hawaii Tenri)
After winning the Senior Nationals in her first appearance in 2006, Swanson has been a player to watch in the heavyweight and Open divisions. A four-time U.S. Open medalist, Swanson placed fifth at the prestigious Belgian Ladies' Open in 2007 and narrowly missed winning the bronze during her first Pan Am outing in the Open division in 2008. Swanson also placed seventh at the 2007 World University Championships.
Connor Murtha (Boulder, Colo. / Team FORCE / Boulder Judo Training Center)
The youngest member of the team, Murtha turned 15 in February. Although he had competed predominantly in junior divisions, Murtha fought at the U.S. Open for the first time in 2008, winning a bronze medal and an opportunity to compete at the Pan American Championships after #1 Steve Perez (Miami, Fla. / USA Judo National Training Site at North Miami) and #2 Everet Desilets (Hope, R.I. / Mayo Quanchi Judo Club) declined invitations.
Aaron Kunihiro (Wakefield, Mass. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE)
A former Senior National Champion in the 55kg division, Kunihiro moved up to 60kg in 2005 and within two years won the first of two bronze medals at the Senior National Championships. Now the top-ranked player in the senior divisions, Kunihiro showed that he will be a player to watch as we approach the 2012 Olympic Games when he placed seventh at the Junior World Championships in 2008.
Jeff Fong (San Jose, Calif. / USA Judo National Training Site at San Jose State University)
Fong, a Collegiate National Champion in both the 66kg and 73kg divisions, advanced to his first major senior final when the 21-year-old won a silver medal at the 2008 U.S. Open. The win would move him over 2008 Olympian Taylor Takata (Colorado Springs, Colo. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Olympic Training Center) in the U.S. rosters and give Fong his first #1 U.S. ranking.
Michael Eldred (Fruitland, Idaho / Western Idaho Judo Institute)
A 2004 Junior World Team member, Eldred had one of the most successful seasons for a U.S. player in 2007 when he earned medals at five B-Level point tournaments across North America and Europe. Now one of the most watched up-and-comers in USA Judo, Eldred will have the opportunity to compete on a senior team for the first time this week.
Travis Stevens (Wakefield, Mass. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE)
The most decorated member of Team USA, Stevens produced one of the greatest upsets of the 2007 Pan Am Games when he defeated a 2004 Olympic medalist and won a gold medal as a member of his first U.S. Team. After winning a silver medal at the 2008 Pan Ams, Stevens held his own against World and Olympic Champions in Beijing when he placed ninth.
Garry St. Leger (Brooklyn, N.Y. / NYAC / Legrosports Starrett)
The alternate to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, St. Leger took a break from competition after the Trials which resulted in a slight drop in his ranking from #1 to #2 last fall. When top-ranked Jacob Larsen (Colorado Springs, Colo. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Olympic Training Center) was unable to compete due to injury, St. Leger stepped in and may be one of Team USA's top hopefuls for a medal after winning bronze in 2007.
Men's 100kg and Open
Kyle Vashkulat (Glenville, N.Y. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Olympic Training Center)
Vashkulat, a former 90kg player, moved up to 100kg in 2007 where he won bronze at the Senior Nationals as the youngest player in the division. The 2008 Junior World Team member moved up to the #2 ranking in the United States last year and accepted the team invitation after two-time World Team member Djamaldin Aliev (Greenwood Village, Colo. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Olympic Training Center) declined to compete. Vashkulat also will be competing in the Open division where he won his first Senior National title in 2008.
Daniel McCormick (Wakefield, Mass. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE) McCormick upset top-ranked Anthony Turner (Miami, Fla. / USA Judo National Training Site at North Miami) at the 2008 Olympic Trials and went on to earn one of the top finishes for the U.S. Team when he placed ninth in Beijing. After Turner withdrew from the Pan Am Team, McCormick accepted a position on his second Pan Am Team. Last year McCormick won a bronze medal in the Open division in Miami.