Since the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, the United States have earned 10 medals for Judo: all of them silver or bronze.
Now, they are aiming high, looking for their first-ever gold medal at the 2012 London Games. As they begin their march, two names from Team USA stand out as the best hope for Olympic gold: Travis Stevens for the men, and Kayla Harrison for the women.
Both Stevens and Harrison are likely to medal, but it is Harrison who seems a favorite to take the gold in her division.
In an interview with Reid Forgrave of Fox Sports, Harrison spoke of all she has overcome on her road to the Olympics. With the rough patches in the road behind her, she is focused on taking home the gold for Team USA.
Harrison has a mantra that speaks to her sole aim at the Olympics: “This is my day. This is my purpose. I’m not afraid to win.”
But all talk of golden glory should be weighed with a healthy amount of respect for the women Harrison will find herself facing. Japan and China have enjoyed more time at the top podium than any other countries when it comes to women’s Judo (Japan with nine gold medals, China with eight).
It won’t be a walk in the park for Harrison, but considering what she’s gone through to get to London, a chance to shine in her element is no doubt a dream come true.
“You’re talking about the most dominant female athlete American Judo has ever had and possibly will ever see,” says Jimmy Pedro, who is the coach for Team USA. “At age 21 she’s the best female competitor we’ve ever had in the history of our country.”
While much of our attention seems to fall upon Harrison, Travis Stevens is poised to make a big impression on the mats in London. He has a chance to erase the memory of a ninth-place finish in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
He’s overcome a great deal in his quest, including a host of injuries that have long been a staple in his life of intense training and competition. It began at the tender age of 11, when he basically destroyed his knee while riding a horse.
Since that time, he has been obsessed with becoming the best in the world at Judo, and with that intensity has come injury after injury.
As reported by Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times, Stevens has learned to turn any situation to his advantage:
“The way this year has started, I’m seeing it as a blessing in disguise,” he said. “This way, my body gets a little bit of rest because there’s no telling what I would have done to it if I were healthy enough to train. I want this so bad.”
With his sights set on nothing less than Olympic gold, Stevens is now ready to make good on his potential, with the lessons he learned in 2008 firmly in his back pocket.
“I went into the Games with an ego problem,” he said. “I was humbled. It ate away at me for months and months. It still does today.”
No matter what his previous stumbling blocks have been, Stevens' dedication and near fanaticism about training has seen him reap numerous rewards: He’s a nine-time World Cup, Grand Prix and Grand Slam medalist and a two-time Pan American Games champion.
Now, he aims to stand atop the podium with a gold medal hanging around his neck. After all he has endured, it’s hard to deny that Stevens is the kind of competitor that won’t settle for anything less than his very best.
And that’s why he’s in London in the first place.