The last thing Nina Cutro-Kelly wants to do is sound cocky.
She’s been on a roll the last year and a half and has no intention of giving the judo gods any reason to throw her to the mat.
But after winning a bronze medal at the Pan American Games in July in Toronto — following a bronze at this year’s Pan American Championships and a gold, silver and three bronze medals in world cup and Continental Open competition since the start of 2014 — Cutro-Kelly, the 34th-ranked heavyweight in the world is feeling better than ever before about her judo prospects.
At the age of 30, she’s riding a wave of momentum.
As she heads into the world championships this week in Kazakhstan, Cutro-Kelly — the top-ranked American in the women’s heavyweight (78-plus kilograms, or 172-plus pounds) class and the oldest member of the U.S. team — believes she has a chance to do well with the right draw.
It’s a level of confidence and success she’s never had, and she hopes it carries right on through 2015 and on to a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro.
“Actually, I always feel like I’m going to jinx myself, to be honest,” she said, laughing. “But I always feel like I’m going into things more confident. For example at the Pan Am Games I saw my draw and I said to myself, ‘If I don’t lose my head, there’s a medal there for me.’ You know, I didn’t used to do that. I never say anything out loud, I never jinx myself, but I can look at a draw and I can, for the most part, tell you what I’m capable of doing.
“That’s not saying I can do it or I will do it, but I can tell you I’m capable of doing it.”
This is Cutro-Kelly’s third trip to the world championships, but her first since 2011, when she finished in the top 16 — just before she suffered torn knee ligaments that set her career back significantly.
But four years later, she’s better than ever.
“It took a while for all the pieces to fall into place, but it really is in place now,” she said. “I’ve had a really good year so far.”
Love At First Throw
Cutro-Kelly, who now lives and trains in San Antonio, grew up in Albany, New York.
She’s been athletic her whole life, competing in basketball, wrestling and, over the past few years, sambo, a Russian combat sport similar to judo.
But judo has been her passion since the age of 7 or 8 when her dad enrolled her in a class.
“I was hyperactive and bad behaved,” she said. “He wanted me to calm down.”
From the first class, she loved it. Her strength and movements were suited for the sport.
“When I got on the judo mat, for the first time in a sport, I wasn’t really clumsy anymore,” she recalled. “I was more like … I was actually bizarrely coordinated at judo in a way that I’d never been in any other sport.”
She enjoyed it so much that her parents kept her in line by playing the “you can’t go to judo” card if she misbehaved.
During her senior year at Union College in Schenectady, New York, she studied in France as an exchange student and discovered the strong judo tradition and programs there. She joined a club and improved.
“My judo, I was a regular national-level player,” she said of her status upon moving to France. “To within six months I became viable on the international level, at least.”
After graduating from Union with a double major (French and pre-law), Cutro-Kelly moved back to France, continued to train and worked as an English teacher, while earning her master’s degree in teaching English as a second language.
Her long-range plan was to move back to the United States, get more personalized coaching and use her degree and experience to start her own business. In January of 2014 she did just that, moving to San Antonio, where she trains with former Olympic coach Jim Hrbek at Universal Judo (where she also coaches). Meanwhile her business plan is working. She teaches English to professional and business people in France via telephone and works as a consultant for universities, language schools and business schools.
She’s her own boss, so she can schedule her work around her judo schedule. She gets much of her work done early in the morning — on French time — so the rest of the day can be all about judo.
“I don’t sleep much, but I get my work done early,” she said.
Her return to the United States has fueled this leap forward, she said. In France, she was doing four to five judo sessions a week, plus a couple of days of running. Now she’s doing two judo workouts a day, plus getting what she calls “Nina-specific training.” While she continues to work on techniques, she’s also been paying more attention to tactics, which she believes is one of the reasons for her improvement.
“It took awhile for all the pieces to fall into place, but it really is in place now,” she said. “I’ve had a really good year so far.”
Another reason for her improvement has been her experience in sambo. She took up the sport after her knee injury and thrived in it. She became No. 1 in the world in her class.
“It actually showed me that I could do this against these bigger girls, professional athletes. … The sport of sambo gave me a lot of confidence in myself that I really needed.”
She’s on the low end of the judo heavyweight scale, coming in about 220 pounds (99.8 kg), and often is paired against opponents weighing 250 to 280 pounds. She uses her better mobility to get them down, then attacks them on the mat. Through sambo, she is a better fighter on the mat.
“I’m very aggressive when we hit the mat, and a lot of heavyweights, because they’re less mobile, will just ball up and let you go after them, which is what I want,” she said. “I want someone to say, ‘Oh, here, take a shot at me,’ when we’re on the mat.”
Cutro-Kelly hopes to earn enough points through this year to put her in line for qualifying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team next year.
“I feel like if I continue on the same path that I’ve had for the last 18 months that, if I can maintain the momentum that I have, I should be OK,” she said. “But getting closer to qualification, it’s going to get more competitive.”
The next step is the world championships. In the days before leaving for Kazakhstan, she said she’d been focused on “getting faster, quicker and more aggressive” to counter the bigger heavyweights she’ll have to battle.
“I feel like I’ve been doing my best to prepare for any situation at the worlds,” she said.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.