Adonis Diaz competes at the Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014 on Aug. 17, 2014 in Nanjing, China.
The U.S. has a number of talented judokas who are capable of putting themselves in podium contention at this year’s world championships, but the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily to medal in 2018.
For the U.S. judo program, still rebuilding after the retirements of several top athletes following the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the goal is to be in top form just under two years from now when they arrive in Tokyo.
That’s not to say they wouldn’t welcome a world title this year from 2016 Olympian Angelica Delgado, rising star Adonis Diaz or any other member of the team, but USA Judo director of athlete performance Ed Liddie said they’re playing the long game.
“We’re looking at it (as a progression) from last year to this year, and then from this year to next,” Liddie said. “From last year to this year we’ll be happy with improvement. If we can have more improvement this year to next year we feel we’ll position ourselves to really push them and see what we can do by the next Olympic year. We’re looking at it as a marathon and not a sprint.”
The U.S. had a strong showing in Rio with Kayla Harrison capturing her second consecutive gold medal in the 78 kg. category and three-time Olympian Travis Stevens winning silver at 81 kg. With her gold medal in 2012, Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. However, both athletes have since retired, along with two-time Olympian and 2012 bronze medalist at 57 kg. Marti Malloy.
The U.S. did not podium at last year’s world championships. The country’s last medal was in 2014, when Harrison won bronze.
The loss of such stars left openings for others to fill, however, and some of them could come from among the ranks of the 18 athletes who will compete at this year’s senior world champions beginning Thursday in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Among them are Delgado, currently ranked 11th in the world at 52 kg., 2014 Youth Olympian Diaz, who’s No. 17 in the world at 60 kg., and 2016 Olympians Nick Delpopolo (73 kg.) and Colton Brown (90 kg.).
Delgado, 27, is seeded for the first time coming into this year’s world championships at No. 8. Described by Liddie as an extremely persistent judoka, Delgado has been in the mix virtually every time she’s competed this year, finishing in the top five in a number of grand prix and grand slam tournaments and winning silver at the Panamerican Senior Championships this past April in Costa Rica.
“Once I got to the Olympics I was like, ‘I’ve fought all these girls. You can’t get any higher than this, and you’re here,’” she said. “I’ve been doing this so long, I’ve been competing internationally since I was 15, so at 25 I was like, ‘I’m ready for this. I’m ready to medal at this level and be the best I can be.’ And I’ve kind of felt that way the two years since Rio. I’m at home in the competition venues, warming up, at practice; I feel very good and every day I’m just trying to do the best and be the best I can be.”
Hannah Martin, 30, has been injured this year but is ready to go, and Liddie said she can fight with anyone and should never be counted out in the 63 kg. class.
2010 Youth Olympian Katelyn Bouyssou, who fights at 48 kg. and was a four-time international medalist in 2017, is another judoka who’s been injured this year, but the 24-year-old shows a great deal of promise, Liddie said.
On the men’s side, the 22-year-old Diaz is poised for a breakthrough. He won bronze medals at the Panamerican Senior Championships and the Antalya Grand Prix this year.
“He’s climbed the ranks pretty steadily and had some big wins this year and placed in a grand prix and in Pan Ams,” Liddie said. “We thought he was going to be in the final, but he got head butted. They stopped the blood and he came back out and fought to finish, but he made a mistake. If the match hadn’t been stopped, though, he was in control of the match and he would’ve been in the finals. We’re proud of his progress and curious to see what the future holds.”
Several of the men who were hot at the end of last year haven’t been able to replicate that this year, Liddie said, but they’re hoping this is their time to catch fire.
“Colton Brown is usually our leading male and we feel that at any time he could just drop in there and be a real consistent guy at the grand prix level,” he said. “Same thing with Jack Hatton (at 81 kg.). He’s young and he’s shown flashes of being able to compete at that level.”
Alex Turner, who fights at 73 kg., is also someone they’re hoping can regain his form beginning at the world championships.
“He’s not been blown out, he’s been right there, and we’re hopeful he’ll figure some things out,” Liddie said.