Marti Malloy has had a love affair with the sport of judo for nearly a quarter of a century.
And the 30-year-old continues to chase her dream of being the best judoka on the planet.
Determined to come back strong after a crushing and controversial setback at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in August, Malloy returns to the mat for the Tokyo Grand Slam event Dec. 2-4.
The new season means another significant opportunity for Malloy, who won an Olympic bronze medal in 2012 and followed with a world silver medal in 2013. Although she is back for the 2016-17 season, she said she hasn’t committed for the full Olympic cycle, which culminates with the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“I’m excited to get back out there and compete again,” she said. “This is the toughest Grand Slam because the host country gets four entries in each weight category and we only send two. Japan is a powerhouse in judo, so that makes it especially difficult. It will be a very tough competition, but it’s a great opportunity going into this season.”
Malloy will be competing for the first time since she suffered an early-round upset defeat at the Olympic Games on Aug. 8. She fell to Taipei’s Lien Chen-Ling in a 57 kg. match where neither fighter scored any points. Lien went on to place fifth.
Malloy was penalized for a “false attack” in the bout when the referee determined there wasn’t enough initiative on her part. That was the difference in the bout.
“I didn’t see it that way,” Malloy said. “I was getting good grips and more attacks off than her. I know that I did one attack that was kind of questionable, but I didn't think it deserved a penalty. I feel like I pushed the pace more than her, and I thought she would possibly get another penalty, too, to tie it up. Instead, I got one.”
An emotional Malloy fought back tears after the heartbreaking defeat.
“It was frustrating and disappointing,” she said. “Losing by a technicality is a much tougher pill to swallow than if you lose by a throw where it’s more definitive. It’s still tough to think about what happened.”
Malloy is looking to reach, and even surpass, the high level she competed at in 2012 and 2013.
Malloy lost to Brazil’s Rafaela Silva in the final of the 2013 worlds in Rio.
“It was incredible to make it to the finals of the worlds,” she said. “But then I lost to the Brazilian in Brazil in front of her home crowd, and I wasn’t close in that fight. She countered me and threw me, and it was over in 30 seconds. I was so embarrassed that I lost in that way.”
Malloy rebounded after that setback. She defeated Silva a handful of times without a loss before Silva came back to win the 2016 Olympic title in Rio. Malloy also won a gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
Now in her 30s, Malloy says she “trains smarter” as she continues to compete against the best athletes in the world.
“I’ve been doing judo for 24 years,” she said. “You can be the strongest fighter and you can be in the best shape, but if you’re not mentally focused you will never win. The mental side of judo is hugely important.”
Even with her own personal setback in Rio, Malloy was ecstatic to see her best friend, Kayla Harrison, capture her second straight Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Games.
Malloy and Harrison are part of an exclusive group of American women to win an Olympic medal in the sport of judo. Ronda Rousey, who went on to win an Ultimate Fighting Championship title, was the first U.S. Olympic women’s medalist in judo after earning a bronze medal in 2008 in Beijing. Harrison, 26, is training in mixed martial arts and told The Boston Globe this weekend that she will decide if she wants to pursue that sport after a January training camp.
“Kayla had an incredible career,” Malloy said. “She burst onto the scene and did things nobody had ever done before. She was so dominant — she’s been unbeatable. What Kayla’s done definitely inspired me. Watching her win the Olympics is one of the most motivating things you can witness.”
Harrison remains the only U.S. woman to capture a world title in judo. The experienced, 5-foot-3 Malloy is hoping to become the second at the 2017 world championships next August in Budapest, Hungary.
“It would be a culmination of my life’s work,” said Malloy, who lives and trains in San Jose, California. “I’ve dedicated so much to the sport that I love. Being a world champion is something I’ve always aspired to. It would be so rewarding to do it. It would be the cherry on top.”