In an Olympic year when traditional giants and top seeded athletes are falling in early rounds, the first two fighters to step on the mats for the U.S. Judo Team are in a terrific position to scale the brackets of this pinnacle competition.
Marti Malloy, 57 KG (National Training Site at San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif.), and Nick Delpopolo, 73 KG (NYAC/Jason Morris Judo) lead the charge for the United States in judo competition at the Olympic Games in London tomorrow, Monday.
Both are very strong competitors, having demonstrated great momentum in the last year, but they are competing in the Olympics for the first time and neither are among the top seeds here based on points accumulated. At these Olympic Games, though, giants are falling as seeming underlings mount the podium in their place.
“It can be done,” said U.S. Olympic Judo Coach Jimmy Pedro. “There is already a trend being set at this Olympics for whatever reason. To be ‘top seed’ is meaningless.” Instead, said Pedro, what he sees on the mats in London are vastly tighter gaps in quality among the best fighters in the world.
Today in London among the men, 66 KG, the number 1 and 2 seeds were knocked off before reaching the podium. And among the women, 52 KG, none of the top eight seeded fighters made it to the podium. “It was a huge upset,” Pedro said. Meanwhile, Japan, homeland and of the sport, has yet to take a gold medal.
“I am super hyped,” said Malloy. “I’ve been watching all the upsets and I’m really pumped.”
Malloy pulled a tough fighter for her first match tomorrow, T. Monteiro of Portugal. Malloy has lost to Monteiro now three times in recent years, but the matches have gotten consistently closer and closer, said Pedro, and this is the perfect time to finish the climb. “She has a great shot at upsetting the No. 2 girl in the world at the right time,” he said. “She is ready for these Olympics.”
Delpopolo said he is ready in every way.
“I have a great draw,” pointing to his first fight against Hong Kong’s Chi Yip Cheung, who stepped into the Olympic draw on a wild-card slot. And then Delpopolo almost certainly faces the No. 8 seed, Belgium’s Dirk Van Tichelt – In the draw, Delpopolo had to pull a player from the top eight seeds, so this was as good as he could have done statistically.
“I’ve fought him before and I feel my chances are really good,” Delpopolo said. “But I just want to take one match at a time, follow a game plan devised with Jimmy and Jason (his coach, Jason Morris) back home. I think my chances are really good.”
“I think Nick is extremely confident going into these games,” said Pedro. And both Malloy and Delpopolo are feeding off the excitement of the Games and Opening Ceremonies – that, too, should work well for them headed onto the mats, he said.
"It is hard to believe that it's been four years since Beijing,” said USA Judo’s CEO Jose H. Rodriguez in London for the judo competition. “What a difference this time. We have a team that is so much better prepared to get on the medal stand."
Rodriguez said he was happy to see that judo was among the most universally represented sports at the Olympics this year, third highest in number of countries participating. That's great news, Rodriguez said, but it also points to the increasing difficulty of qualifying a team.
To qualify for the Olympic Games, a fighter must be ranked in top 22 in the world for a male and top 14 for female. This means they have to travel around the world and fight everywhere, a challenge.
"This proves what we have been saying over the last four years, that this is a completely new era in judo. Getting on the podium is much, much tougher. Just getting to the Olympics makes you a champion."
The Men’s 73 KG division is slated to begin competing at 9:30 a.m. London time (4:30 a.m. EST), and the Women’s 57 KG shortly after. The medal rounds begin in the afternoon at 2 p.m. (9 a.m. EST). Go to NBCOlympics.com for complete results and to WATCH LIVE. Go to IPPON.ORG to see brackets and results.
On Tuesday, watch Travis Stevens, 81 KG (NYAC/Team FORCE, Wakefield, Mass.) fight. And on Aug. 2, Kayla Harrison, 78 KG (NYAC/Team FORCE, Wakefield, Mass.) and Kyle Vashkuklat, 100 KG (NYAC/Jason Morris Judo, Glenville, N.Y.).