LONDON - With two bandages partly obscuring his face during his judo semifinal, Travis Stevens looked like “a true warrior in the Olympic spirit,” said his coach Jimmy Pedro.
But while a doctor could stanch the bleeding from Stevens’ two cuts, nothing could stop the pain of losing by decision to German rival Ole Bischof in the 81 kg/178 lb category at the ExCeL Center.
“I was devastated,” said Stevens, 26, of Tacoma, Wash. “I was mentally and physically ready today to win a gold medal.”
Instead, he went home empty-handed. In Olympic judo, the entire weight class is contested the same day and Stevens was too physically drained to win his bronze-medal match about half an hour later.
Stevens lost to Canadian Antoine Valois-Fortier, who had never beaten him before, but it was the failure to contend for the gold that hurt even worse.
“My grandfather died last year, and it pretty much feels the same way,” said Stevens, who worked furiously for four years after also losing to Bischof at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, where he was ninth. “It’s like losing a family member. You lost something you’ve worked your entire life for today. There’s not going to be another London Olympics 2012. This is it. It’s time to go home. There’s nothing to be done.”
After both losses, Stevens crumpled to the mat, inconsolable.
“It’s the agony of defeat,” Pedro said. “You couldn’t ask for him to do anything more today. He left it all out on the mat. And for that, I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Both Stevens and Pedro thought he defeated Bischof, the 2008 Olympic champion who secured the silver medal in London.
After the 5-minute match ended in a 0-0 draw, it went to a 3-minute period, and still no one scored a point. That left it to the officials.
The referee and judges then held two flags in their hands – white for Stevens and blue for Bischof. All three blue flags went up.
“I thought I had done enough,” said Stevens, who was in tears after the match. “I thought I had won. And I guess the judges and the referee saw it another way.
“I don’t feel like the German beat me. I feel like the refs took it away from me.”
Stevens said he thought even Bischof felt the match had gone the other way. “He looked pretty relieved to see the way the judges scored it,” he said.
Pedro, who had pumped his fist after time expired, thinking his athlete had won, said the German coach shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sorry,” to him after the match.
“I think everybody in the room who really knows judo well thought Travis won,” said Pedro, who won Olympic bronze medals in 1996 and 2004. “Unfortunately, it was close, so it could have gone either way, but I think nine times out of 10, Travis gets that match.”
The two judokas already had a history of bad blood. “He beat me in the last Olympics on his way to the gold medal in ‘08,” Stevens said, “and then I came back and beat him in Germany on my way to a gold medal in the Grand Prix. And he beat me here today.”
And this time, the match drew blood. The first cut, on Stevens’ left eyebrow, opened up just 15 seconds into the match. “We always have physical matches that way,” said Stevens. “We don’t really see eye to eye. So I expected that going into the match.”
About a minute later they had a stare-down and had to be separated. A couple of minutes after that, Stevens was cut in a different place on his face and a doctor came onto the mat to bandage him again.
“I felt (Bischof) was getting tired, and the doctor was trying to finagle some stuff,” Stevens said. “I needed him off the mat, to get my hands back on the German to keep wearing him out. He was lucky that there were two cuts in the match. I felt like that gave him a break, gave him a little bit of time to kind of get back in shape, get his thoughts together and compose himself to get the win.”
Even with U.S. teammate Kayla Harrison screaming encouragement, Stevens could not get a point in either match. He lost the bronze medal match 1-0, called a “yuko.”
“Hardly anybody who loses in the semis comes back and wins a bronze because you were so close to reaching your lifelong dream -- and it didn’t happen,” Pedro said. “And then to have to turn around 15 minutes later and walk out on the mat and fight another match against somebody who’s on a high, who’s on a roll, who’s just happy to be there and fought a little bit earlier, so has had more rest time.”
Pedro said that Stevens is usually able to “manhandle” Valois-Fortier, who had knocked off British medal hope Euan Burton in the early rounds.
“Physically he’s a stronger player, but today, he wasn’t,” Pedro said. “And that’s the dynamic of the Olympics. The Olympics is a special event for the sport of judo because it has one weight class per day. That never happens in any of our other tournaments. And that’s what makes the Olympics so difficult in our sport.”
Stevens said he will continue to chase that gold medal. “I can’t end my career the way today has gone,” he said, “not just for me, but for my coaches, training partners. It’s back to the drawing board. It’s back to work -- as soon as possible.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.