(Daytona Beach, Fla.) – First-time gold medalists and members of Team USA highlighted the top of the podium at the Senior National Championships in Daytona Beach at the Ocean Center on Saturday.
With qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games set to begin next month, many of the hopefuls for the Paris team were in action in Daytona as 14 Senior National Champions were crowd. More than 400 athletes competed in the event that included 106 additional categories with athletes fighting in veteran, junior, visually impaired, brown belt and novice events.
Fighting in her first Senior Nationals since 2018, two-time Olympian Angelica Delgado (Miami, Fla. / NYAC / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) is one of the most decorated athletes in the event’s history, earning her sixth National Championship in the 52kg event with three straight throws for ippon (instant win).
In the finals, Delgado threw 2021 Senior National Champion Brinna Lavelle (Woodlawn, Tenn. / Club Olympia Judo) in the third minute to take gold.
“I hadn’t fought a national event for like three years, so it was nice to be out there again,” Delgado said. “It’s kind of like being at home and a lot of people from our club are here. I had a lot of people say ‘Oh, I only ever see you fight on TV or through a computer,’ so it was nice to show up.”
Delgado said Senior Nationals served as a good warmup for the Tbilisi Grand Slam in Georgia in two weeks as she begins her quest to qualify for a third straight Olympic Team.
“I’m all in. I took eight months off from competition right after the Olympics. My first real tournament back was Pan Ams and I got silver, so I’m right back in it again. My summer’s completely booked with tournaments now,” said Delgado who said falling short of the podium in Tokyo keeps her motivated to qualify for a third team when she will be 33 years old in Paris.
While the international circuit will return in full force in June, Delgado does have one weekend off the mat when she marries three-time Senior World Team member Alexander Turner (Miami, Fla. / NYAC / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) in September – just two weeks before she hopes to compete at the Senior World Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
“It was tough because I wanted to have my wedding after World Championships, but then they pushed it back to October, but it’ll be fine. I’ll get married on a weekend and get back to training on Monday,” Delgado laughed.
Several sets of siblings placed at the Senior National Championships, including Ari Berliner (Cumming, Ga. / NYAC / Jason Morris Judo Center) who earned his second title in the 66kg division just minutes after older brother Kell Berliner (Cumming, Ga. / Jason Morris Judo Center) won his second gold in 81kg. Father Gary Berliner (Cumming, Ga.) also was nearby as the chief referee for the event and a three-time Senior Nationals medalist himself.
Twenty-eight-year old Kell Berliner fought his final match first. After three wins by ippon, Kell took on Nicolas Yonezuka (West Long Branch, N.J. / NYAC / Cranford Judo & Karate Center) – a 2021 Junior World Team member who edged Kell to make the 2022 Senior Pan Am Team.
The friendly rivals fought each other twice in finals on the Pan Am Open circuit last spring with Berliner winning their match in the Dominican Republic and Yonezuka earning gold in Ecuador.
In the final in Daytona, Yonezuka scored first, throwing Berliner for a waza-ari, but Berliner, a 2017 Senior World Team member, took the winning score when he threw Yonezuka for ippon.
“It was such a close fight. Such a close fight,” Berliner said. “We’re getting some hard work in against each other. I’m really loving it. It’s wonderful. He’s a great sport and he works really hard. I’m really enjoying steel sharpening steel.”
Not surprisingly, Ari was matside for his older brother’s fight.
“It’s more worrisome watching my brother fight than when I do,” Ari Berliner said. “I can’t control anything. I can’t coach him. I’m not even really supposed to yell from where I am. So it’s definitely a harder time. But I’m happy that he won. That also puts a little more pressure on you, though. Your brother wins just before you and it’s ‘Oh, I have to win now.’”
Ari’s road to the finals featured several exciting matches as he won the first two rounds by ippon and met three-time Senior Pan Am medalist Adonis Diaz (Hialeah, Fla. / NYAC / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) in the semifinal. A four-time Senior World Team member at 60kg, Diaz moved up to 66kg this year and was among the athletes to watch for gold in his new division.
“I was a little nervous. I haven’t fought him in three or four years. He was the first person to beat me at my first Junior Nationals when I was 14 and he was like 17. He kicked my butt and it wasn’t even close,” Berliner said. “There’s a little bit of a psychological aspect of that. But he’s a fantastic competitor. He counters my style a little bit. It was a fantastic match and just happened to go my way this time.”
In overtime of an action-packed semifinal, Berliner caught Diaz in a pin to win the match.
Just minutes after Kell won his title, Ari took the mat for his own chance at a second Senior National title.
“It was super exciting. I finished mine and I was super stoked and I saw Ari go out and I was like ‘Yeah, Ari, you’re gonna crush it,’” Kell said.
Ari controlled his own final from the start, however, securing gold when he took the match to the ground and armbarred Amin Bakhtiyor (Fairfax, Va. / Pedro’s Judo Center).
“It feels really good. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to do this not once, but twice, and to have gotten my hands on some great guys,” Ari said. “It was a really awesome day to have had my teammates and family nearby and win my second National Championships.”
Nicolas Yonezuka’s younger brother, Jack Yonezuka (West Long Branch, N.J. / NYAC / Cranford Judo & Karate Center) also brought home a medal to the family collection, winning his first Senior National title the day after his 19th birthday. Both brothers follow in the footsteps of their father, Nicolas Yonezuka (West Long Branch, N.J. / Cranford Judo & Karate Center) who won five Senior National titles and qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team. Their grandfather, Yoshisada Yonezuka (Cranford, N.J. Cranford Judo & Karate Center) coached two Olympic Teams.
Jack Yonezuka, the 2020 Cadet Pan Am Champion at 66kg won the 73kg title in Daytona, defeating the 2020 Junior Pan American Champion in the 73kg event, Nicholas Rodriguez (Lehigh Acres, Fla. / NYAC / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center), in the final.
Yonezuka, who won two of his first three matches by ippon, threw Rodriguez for waza-ari scores in back-to-back exchanges in the final 90 seconds of the match to win gold.
Yonezuka was one of four junior athletes to win gold medals in the men’s event as the next generation makes its mark in preparation for the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games.
The day’s youngest gold medalist was 16-year-old Chris Velazco (Coral Springs, Fla.) who won the 60kg title in his Senior National debut.
Velazco, who won his third Cadet Pan American title in front of his Peruvian grandparents in Lima last month, won his first two matches by ippon to advance to the finals against David Terao (Arlington, Va.), a bronze medalist at the Tunis African Open earlier this season.
With Terao sitting on two penalties at the end of regulation, Velazco forced a third in Golden Score to win the match.
“I had a really good game plan. He was a lefty and I knew exactly how to approach him. I feel like I’ve stepped up my game since the last time I fought him, so I felt pretty confident,” Velazco said. “But, either way, I knew I couldn’t slack off because he could catch me at any time, but I got the job done and I executed my game plan exactly how I wanted.”
For Velazco, the question was never whether he was going to do judo, but when as his father, German Velazco (Coral Springs, Fla. / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) had been an Olympian for Peru and had coached multiple U.S. teams.
“From a little age, everyone expected it. My dad’s the head coach of our judo club too and everyone was wondering when I would start. As a kid, I struggled mentally, because I knew I had the talent, but I needed to work hard for it. And it was just a long struggle,” he said. “There’s always been some pressure on my back too because everyone expects a lot from me as they expected from my dad, but it’s been such an amazing journey and I’ve gotten so much better and I think I can just keep getting better from here.”
Two of Velazco and Yonezuka’s 2022 Junior Pan Am teammates also won Senior National titles.
Alexander Knauf (Yorkville, Ill. / NYAC / Cohen Brothers Judo), a silver medalist at the Junior Pan Ams, won the 90kg title in Daytona, defending his 2021 Senior National Gold. The 2019 Cadet World Team member won three straight matches by ippon and threw Jesse Butler (Westminster, Colo. / Denver) for ippon with a huge uchimata (inner thigh throw).
The heavyweight silver medalist at the Junior Pan Ams and bronze medalist at Senior Pan Ams, Christian Konoval (Rockport, Texas / NYAC / Becerra Judo) won his first two matches by ippon and then pinned fellow 18-year-old Johnie Shepard (Kansas City, Mo. / Welcome Mat Judo Club) in the finals.
In the men’s 100kg event, Oleksandr Blekherov (North Bay Village, Fla. / Budokan Judo School) was the day’s oldest gold medalist, winning his first Senior National title at 34 years old. A silver medalist at the 2018 Senior Nationals, Blekherov won three straight matches to advance to the finals where he upset 2021 Senior World Team member Nate Keeve (San Rafael, Calif. / NYAC) by ippon.
While the day’s events included seven first-time Senior National Champions, 31-year-old Maria Laborde (Kenosha, Wis. / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) stood out as the most experienced in the field, winning the 48kg title as a 2014 Senior World bronze medalist who fought for Cuba until coming to the United States where she is in school to become a physical therapist.
After receiving her U.S. citizenship and clearance to represent Team USA, Laborde competed at her first Senior Pan Ams as a U.S. team member in April, winning bronze.
In Daytona, Laborde won her semifinal against Hikaru Abe (Seattle, Wash. / Obukan Judo) by ippon to advance to the finals where she threw two-time Junior World Team member Giovanna Prado (Coral Springs, Fla. / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) for ippon.
“I come from Cuba and I have all my results from there so I was very prepared for this and just want to show I’m good. I was just out there to do my best and do what I had to do,” said Laborde who won a gold medal at the Tunis African Open in her first international tournament for the United States. “My intention was to compete for the USA Team, but when you come from Cuba you have to wait for the papers and citizenship. As soon as I got it, I said I would be happy to represent the U.S.”
In the women’s 70kg event, a first-time gold medalist upset several of the top athletes in the division as Yasmin Alamin (Woodbridge, Va. / Sport Judo) won her first Senior National title after placing third in 2021. Alamin defeated 2021 Senior National Champion Melissa Myers (Burnt Hills, N.Y. / Jason Morris Judo Center) and three-time Senior World Team member Chantal Wright (San Antonio, Texas / Semper Fortis Judo) each by ippon in the opening rounds. Fencing in the finals of her second-ever Senior Nationals, Alamin threw 2021 Senior Nationals bronze medalist Isabella Garriga (Richmond, Texas / Texas A&M Judo) for ippon.
Four women returned to the top of the Senior Nationals podium for the second time.
After winning her first bronze medal at the Senior Pan Ams in April, two-time Senior World Team member Mariah Holguin (San Antonio, Texas / Universal Judo) successfully defended her 57kg Senior National title, winning two matches by ippon and pinning 2022 Junior Pan Am silver medalist Tasha Cancela (Coral Springs, Fla. / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) for gold.
A 2021 Senior World Team member, Sara Golden (Crystal Lake, Ill. / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) also returned to the top of the podium for the second straight year, winning gold in the 63kg event. After two byes, Golden won her semifinal bout by ippon and went on to pin 2021 Cadet Pan American Champion Karlee Carrouth (Oklahoma City, Okla. / USA Stars) in the finals.
Fighting up from 70kg, 2017 Senior World Team member Nicole Stout (Schenectady, N.Y. / Jason Morris Judo Center) won her second title in the 78kg event, finishing the round robin with a 3-0 record.
In the heavyweight event, 2019 Senior World Team member Mackenzie Williams (El Lago, Texas / Westlake Judo Club) won her second title, five years after taking gold in 2017. Williams finished 2-0 in her round robin event to take gold.