Tacoma native Travis Stevens became the first American male since 2004 to win an Olympic medal in judo on Tuesday at the Rio Summer Games.
Stevens, competing in his third Olympics, came up short in his attempt to become the first American male to win a gold medal, losing to Khasan Khalmurzaev of Russia in the final match of the men’s 81-kilogram competition.
The sixth-seeded Khalmurzaev, who has not been beaten all year, came within inches of losing when Stevens dragged him to the mat and tried for a submission, but Stevens couldn’t lock up the hold. Shortly after that, Stevens appeared to have a lapse of concentration which allowed Khalmurzaev a slight gripping advantage, and that was enough to let the Russian throw Stevens for an ippon score to automatically end the contest.
By claiming the silver medal, Stevens, 30, became the first American man to win an Olympic medal since Jimmy Pedro, the current United States coach, won bronze in Athens in 2004. It’s the first silver medal for the American men in since Jason Morris at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
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Kayla Harrison, who trains with Stevens in Wakefield, Massachusetts, is the only American to win gold in judo, winning the women’s 78-kilogram category in London in 2012.
Winning a silver medal overwhelmed Stevens after the match.
“It’s hard not to just break down in tears after everything I’ve been through in life, and everything that I’ve been through just within the last year almost not making the Games, almost retiring after the injuries,” he said.
The bronze medals were won by Sergiu Toma of the United Arab Emirates and Takanori Nagase of Japan.
The silver was as good as gold to Stevens, given what he has endured.
“That was definitely a low point in my life when we were at the world championships and my leg was swollen to twice the (normal) size, and none of the doctors could figure it out,” he said. “We made the weight, we fought and came back to the States to find out that if I made it back a day or two later they would have had to cut my leg off.”
That was August 2015, he said, and what followed was surgery and home care for two months for what was an unexplained infection of blood, muscle and skin.
“That was definitely a scary moment, and you tend to question, ‘What is this moment in time worth?’ And I can tell you it was worth every sacrifice I ever made,” Stevens said.
Stevens was in top form on Tuesday, winning most of his fights by the maximum score, including a hard-fought semifinal where he caught top-seeded Avtandil Tchrikishvili of Georgia in a stranglehold, forcing him to tap out in submission.
Stevens, seeded fifth, made it to the semifinals by winning his preliminary three fights in the morning. He dominated with an aggressive style and won two of them — against Uzbekistan’s Shaxzod Sobirov in the round of 16 and against Bulgaria’s Ivaylo Ivanov in the quarterfinals — automatically by ippon, one with a match-ending throw and the other by pinning down his opponent for 20 seconds, which also instantly ends the bout.
Stevens, who went to Auburn Riverside High School and San Jose State University, finished fifth at the London Olympics and won the World Master’s tournament in May, a competition featuring the world’s top 16 judo athletes.
His London judogi, the term for a traditional judo uniform, hangs in the foyer of the Auburn Riverside gymnasium thanks to vice principal Frank Ramirez, who persuaded Stevens to lend it.
Stevens’ silver medal made Auburn Riverside teacher Dave Goethals remember the weight-training syllabus Stevens turned in during the spring of 2002 — Stevens’ sophomore year in high school.
“It asked what their three objectives were,” said Goethals, who has been teaching at Auburn Riverside since 1999. “And two he had on there were that he wanted to be a part of the national team, and to win an Olympic medal.”
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“You talk about work ethic and dedication — he had an immense work ethic,” Goethals said. “And his self discipline is what set him aside from everyone I’ve seen. I couldn’t be prouder of him. Like he said in high school — you make time for what you value most.”
Staff writer TJ Cotterill and Kevin G. Hall of McClatchy contributed to this report.