Travis Stevens celebrates victory in his quarterfinal bout against Ivaylo Ivanov of Bulgaria in the men's -81-kg. bout at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Carioca Arena 2 on Aug. 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO — U.S. men’s judoka Travis Stevens won a historic silver medal Tuesday at Carioca Arena 2 at Barra Olympic Park, one year after not knowing if he would ever compete again.
“It’s hard not to break down in tears after everything that I have been through in life,” Stevens said. “To be able to put it to the grindstone and have my team behind me to this point means more than the world to me.”
Despite losing to Russian gold medalist Khasan Khalmurzaevby ippon (100-point takedown) in Tuesday’s gold-medal match, Stevens’ Olympic result was something to celebrate. He became the first U.S. men’s judo silver medalist in the 81 kg. division after nearly losing his leg last year at the world championships.
“None of the doctors could figure it out,” he said. “We made weight and we fought and came back to the States to find out that if I had made it back a day later, they would've have to cut my leg off.”
In August 2015, Stevens was diagnosed with MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), cellulitis, and a muscle contusion in his right knee. The bacteria-based skin infection affects a person’s bloodstream. Stevens’ leg swelled to twice its size. He had to be hospitalized and on home care for two months.
“It was definitely a scary moment and you tend to question what is this moment and time really worth?” he said. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to come back to judo after that.”
However, he knew that he couldn’t give up on the sport he loved.
“I had a job to do and you always compete,” he said.
He is the first U.S. men’s Olympic medalist in judo since his coach, Jimmy Pedro, won bronze at the 2004 Games. U.S. men have won four silvers and six bronze medals but never a gold in judo.
“I can tell you it (silver medal) is worth every sacrifice I ever made,” Stevenssaid.
Stevens finished ninth at the Beijing 2008 Olympics and fifth at the London 2012 Olympics.
He was dominant in the early portions of the Rio81 kg. Tournament, winning his first three matches and scoring three consecutive ippons en route to the final.
His best match was against world No. 1 judoka Avtandili Tchrikishvili. In a tough matchup, he beat his Georgian adversary with an armbar submission in the closing moments.
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“I was definitely looking to get it to the floor,” Stevens said. “Every time you stand up and throw with him, he tends to counter with big pickups. The goal was to drop underneath him and bring him down to the mat.”
After the match, he let out a huge roar that brought the crowd to its feet. With his arms extended, he pointed to the sky in celebration.
“Once I felt it loop under his chin and the ref didn’t stop it, I knew I made the Olympic final,” he said.
The victory was a picturesque moment for Stevens, who said that winning in Rio is the best way to possibly end his Olympic journey.
“I love Rio and I love the city,” said Stevens, 30. “I started my career here and now the 81 kg. division is being hung up here.”
Looking ahead, he could transition to the 90 kg. division or explore jiu-jitsu. But for now, he is focused on enjoying the moment with his family and U.S. Olympic teammates.
“The next step is to enjoy the Olympic Games and the Olympic spirit,” he said. “Hopefully, I get to watch Team USA win more medals in other sports, especially wrestling.”
Jaylon Thompson is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.