By Jaylon Thompson | Aug. 08, 2016, 6:04 p.m. (ET)
Travis Stevens (R) and Ivan Felipe Silva Morales (L) of Cuba compete at the Dusseldorf Judo Grand Prix at Mitsubishi Electric Halle on Feb. 20, 2016 in Dusseldorf, Germany.


RIO DE JANEIRO—U.S. men’s judoka Travis Stevens still remembers a raucous Brazilian crowd at the Rio 2007 Pan American Games.

“When I fought Flavio (Canto), I loved it,” Stevens said. “I thrive on beating people in their home country and in front of their hometown crowd. It is my underdog mentality.”

Amid roaring “Flavio!” chants, Stevens defeated his Brazilian adversary en route to his first Pan American gold medal in the 81 kg. weight class.

Now nine years later, Stevens returns to Brazil looking to become the first U.S. men’s Olympic gold medalist in judo. He competes in the first round Tuesday against Robin Pacek of Sweden.

“It has been one of the wild and crazy roller coaster rides that I have been on,” Stevens said. “Over the last years, there have been talks of retirement, weight changes and competing at the Games.”

Stevens announced in early August that Rio will most likely be his last competition in his weight class.

“This will probably be my last event at 81 kg,” he said. “If I feel re-inspired to go another quad (four years) it will be at 90 kg. and I will have that outlet to keep going.”

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The reason for the possible change in weight class is to help his body recover faster and relieve nagging injuries that come from competing at 81 kg. Stevens said it also could help him make competition weight -- he’s been dropping 20 pounds before weigh-ins -- without giving up on his eating habits.

“It will help me go another four years,” Stevens said of the possible change.

Stevens enters the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with a lot of momentum. The three-time Olympian is currently ranked No. 5 in the world and earned several strong wins since placing fifth at the London Games in 2012. Among those victories were gold medals at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and the 2016 World Judo Masters Tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico.

He defeated Belgium’s Joachim Bottieau to become the first U.S. man to win the World Judo Masters Tournament, an invitation-only event that included many top judokas. Stevens said the victory has given him confidence to medal in Rio.

“I wanted to make sure that I could make it into the medal round,” he said. “Everybody that I did fight is going to be here on (Tuesday) and to win that just proves that I am ready to win a gold medal.”

Stevens plans on doing all he can to follow in the footsteps of U.S. women’s judoka Kayla Harrison, who became the first U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in judo at the London Games.

“It means more to me that we get to leave people with a lasting image,” Stevens said. “Seeing me break record and do something for the first time inspires them. That medal accomplishes that idea more so than having it on my mantel.”

His teammate Colton Brown, who trained with Stevens from May through July, said that a gold medal is a possibility for Stevens based on his intense training exercises.

“He looks good and feels good and I think he will do serious work,” Brown said.

That moment could come very quickly for Stevens.

“Winning that gold at the (2007) Pan American Games was the start of my career and ending it on a gold here at Rio would be a perfect finish,” Stevens said.

Jaylon Thompson is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.