USA Judo’s Kayla Harrison, a favorite to take the nation’s first Olympic gold in judo this summer, demonstrated once again yesterday that she is worthy of that rare metal, and U.S. Olympic teammate Travis Stevens showed the world that he is back from injuries and ready to scale the highest podiums on earth.
Not a nanosecond passed today that Kayla Harrison, 78 kg (NYAC/TeamForce, Wakefield, Mass.) was not in control during her two short matches that put her on the pinnacle of the podium at the 2012 Grand Slam Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, twisting and wrenching her first opponent into an arm bar with seeming ease, then planting her second challenger with an ippon seoi nage (shoulder throw).
“Felt good,” she later texted. “Only had two matches so I was disappointed the tournament wasn't as tough as I'd hoped for. I also wanted to get my hands on Mayra. But she knows, so the trip served its purpose.”
“Mayra” is Brazil’s Mayra Aguiar and Harrison’s rival. Aguiar is ranked No. 1 in the world on the International Judo Federation’s list. Harrison is ranked No. 2.
For Stevens, 81 kg (NYAC/TeamFORCE, Wakefield, Mass.), this was a test. He has not fought in an elite tournament since December. Keeping him from competition and serious training were first a torn muscle in his hamstring and then a broken toe. He only had one week of serious training prior to stepping on the mats in Rio and what does he say after taking silver? That he’s grateful for the one fighter he couldn’t beat:
“I don’t care that I finished second. I am happy that I lost, and that there was a least one guy in the bracket who pushed me to go the distance. I wasn't expecting to make it out of the first round. I haven't competed in almost eight months. I have only had one week of training leading up to this contest, and four days before leaving I got really sick and was bed ridden and on some meds. So to pull it all together and make it to the final and fight the final for a whole eight minutes, I'm happy. I got what I came here for: matches, money ($2,400 prize for silver) and to see where I'm at for the Games. And I like where I'm at. And I know what I have to do in order to be ready for the Games.”
Contrary to his misconceptions arriving in Rio, Stevens appeared unstoppable through his first three matches.
He finished his first fight, against Brazilian Mauro Henrique Moura, with an ippon seoi nage for ippon (a full point and what would be a knockout in boxing) with 47 seconds remaining on the clock. Stevens already was ahead by a wazari (half point) for a first ippon seoi nage and a yuko (minor point) for two penalties against the Brazilian.
He then nailed an ippon with an uchimata against Argentinian Alfredo Effron in his second match, and then defeated Russia's Maksim Buga with a pin for ippon. Travis had the Russian in three pins for about 10 seconds each, then finally got one to stick.
In the finals for gold, referees awarded the match to Brazilian Victor Penalber on flags following an eight-minute dog fight, including the regular five-minute round and three minutes of golden-score overtime. Stevens fought strong, shooting several seio nage. For his fight he received applause for the Brazilian crowd.
This was a relatively small Grand Slam, which promises some big points that athletes would use to qualify for the Olympics, but judo teams have already qualified. Still, these settings provide training opportunities. Said Harrison, “As always this is only preparation for London, and today was good … Things I have been working on have started to come into play. I am excited and ready for London.”
In addition to Harrison and Stevens, U.S. Teammate Nick Delpopolo fought in Rio. Delpopolo, 73 kg. (NYAC/Jason Morris Judo Center) fought hard to go 1-1 and take 5th in a tough division yesterday (Saturday). Delpopolo won his first match against Emanoel Santos of Brazil before facing Canadian Alexis Morin-Martel who caught Delpopolo in a throw for wazari with about a minute left.
To see complete brackets and results, go to IPPON.ORG.