Tacoma native takes love for judo to London Olympics
As Travis Stevens readies to represent the United States in his second Olympic Games, it’s interesting to be reminded that during his youth in Tacoma, he was on teams for chess and tennis.
But it was a sport slightly more physical that best suited him.
“My mom was looking to start me in sports, so we went to the South End Boys & Girls Club,” Stevens remembered. “I got my start in judo at age 7.”
The 26-year-old Tacoma native and Auburn Riverside High School grad will be one of America’s favorites to medal at the London Olympics after having won a silver medal in the recent Grand Slam Rio event, lifting his total to 20 medals in international tournaments.
“She signed me up and I fell in love with it from day one,” Stevens said in an interview from Prague, where he went 4-2 in European Cup matches. “I love the competitiveness of the sport. It’s two people pitted against each other.”
And, apparently, it beats the adrenaline rush of chess.
Judo matches are an exhausting 5 minutes of continuous fighting with no breaks, unlike the rounds or periods provided by boxing or wrestling.
“Judo requires that you press the action for the entire match or risk getting a penalty, which means you have to be in better shape than your opponent,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of conditioning and technical training that goes along with our sport.”
The roots of judo are in Japanese culture, and the terms for scoring and technique are still in Japanese. The account of one of his wins in Rio, for instance, pointed out that he finished his first fight “... with an ippon seoi nage ...” but by then, he was already leading by a wazari.
That Stevens could medal in Rio was more impressive considering it was his first elite event since tearing a hamstring muscle and breaking a toe last winter.
No, he says, such injuries are not the norm for judo. But they are not unusual for Stevens, considering his full-bore approach to his sport.
“It’s just the way that I choose to train and compete; I go 100 percent ... all the time, every time,” he said. “I’ve learned to deal with injuries as a part of everyday life. Some people wonder how certain people can wake up every morning at 4 or 5 a.m. and go to work day in and day out. For me, dealing with a broken finger, a torn rotator cuff or even a fractured ankle, is just another day in the office.”
That’s a pretty tough office, Travis.
But if you want to excel in the job of judo, you have to be prepared for such things.
“It has a lot to do with mental toughness. I refuse to let pain dictate what I can and can’t do,” he said. “I tore my hamstring in January, and three days later I was on a full lifting routine five days a week.”
He said he holds himself accountable every night, before falling asleep, when he reviews the day and asks if he did everything he could in the pursuit of his goal.
He shaped this mission four years ago after finishing ninth in the Beijing Olympics.
“I learned that I can’t let my pride get in the way and I have to play some matches with strategy in order to win,” he said of the lessons of Beijing. “Not everyone can be beaten with the same series of techniques. I need a game plan for some players. I’ve spent the last four years putting together game plans for these players just for London.”
While analysts consider him a legitimate medal contender, Stevens goes further: “I expect myself to win.”
“I love to compete and I love to win,” he said. “There is no greater feeling in the world than when you physically dominate and control someone to a victory. When you have pushed your body to the limits in a match and come out on top, that feeling can’t be described or replicated in any way. It’s tremendous.”
Beats body-slamming an opponent’s rook on the way to a checkmate any day.