Beijing-bound Travis Stevens of Tacoma finds time to return home and teach judo to kids

Stephen Chen

Staff writer

As Travis Stevens leads other judo participants - judokas - in stretches and demonstrates various takedown techniques at the Lakewood YMCA, he is seemingly a different person than the one in the pictures plastered about the gym walls.

Gone are the clenched fists,  bulging veins and menacing stare. Instead of towering over an opponent after a victory,  he kneels down next to a boy to give him some pointers.

Getting away from the national competition is always special for Stevens. This is the same place and these are the same people with whom he spent countless hours of training as a child. These days,  it isn't often that the 22-year-old Stevens,  an Auburn Riverside High School graduate,  gets to come home. With a rigorous training schedule,  and limited funds,  he's lucky if he makes it back once a year.

"When he comes back,  it brings back memories, " said Anna Stevens,  his mother. "We reminisce about the things when he was little - all the judo things. Somebody is always bringing up how hard he worked."

Tacoma is where it all began for Stevens. He wanted to take up karate at first,  but there was an 8-year-old age requirement. Not wanting to wait,  Stevens signed up for judo instead,  three months before his seventh birthday.

It was just over a year later that he traveled to Hawaii for the U.S. Judo Junior Nationals,  and by that time,  it was apparent he was a special talent.He won the title,  and when he came back to Tacoma,  he told his family,  "I want to go to the Olympic Games."

Last month,  his dream became a reality. At the U.S. Olympic trials in Las Vegas,  Stevens went undefeated in three fights. The championship bout went into overtime before he pinned Aaron Cohen of Buffalo Grove,  Ill.,  to clinch his spot. Stevens will be competing in the 81 kilogram division for the U.S. judo team that will travel to Beijing in August.

On this day,  he is giving back to the community that gave him his start. At 11 a.m. he steps on the mat at the Lakewood Y;  the buzzer signaling the end of the day doesn't sound until 4 p.m. It seems like quite the day.

"Nah, " said Stevens,  catching his breath as he sat down for the first time in hours. "This is a short one."

Stevens now resides in New York and trains full-time at the Jason Morris Judo Center - that is,  when he isn't traveling the world. In addition to his strong showing at the U.S. Olympic trials,  he won the gold medal in the 2007 Pan-American Games in Brazil and silver in the 2008 Pan-American Championship in Florida.

"It's not like I get to go out and sight-see, " he said. "Most of the time I'm cutting weight for tournaments. It's like going on a 20-hour road trip and not being able to eat and drink. It's not fun."

Stevens doesn't even mention the constant rehab process he's endured. Just in the last year,  he's broken his leg,  torn ligaments in his ankle and meniscus in his knee,  received seven stitches on his face and broken a few fingers.

"He seems to always get injured, " Anna Stevens said. "He thrives on that."

Try telling her the Japanese martial art of judo is known as the "gentle way." But it's apparent she has gotten accustomed to his getting hurt,  as she lists his injuries almost nonchalantly. When Stevens began training,  Anna Stevens knew little about the sport. Now she is a self-proclaimed judo mom,  fully entrenched in the tight-knit judo community.

She traveled to almost every event with Stevens early on,  but after he finished high school,  the trips became more frequent and farther away: Illinois,  New York,  Venezuela. Now,  she waits for the one or two days every year Stevens is able to stop by Tacoma.

Hours after the clinic in Lakewood,  Stevens was on his way back to New York. He flew to Spain with Team USA for a training camp with other top judokas. Then he was off to Germany to compete in the final major tournament before the Olympics.

Anna Stevens won't see her son again until the end of the year - at the earliest. After years of traveling,  the family will not be able to afford a trip to Beijing. The financial burden impacts the athletes as well.

Stevens must pay for all the competitions he participates in throughout the year. Unable to fit work into his training schedule,  Stevens relies on donations and teaches clinics like the one last Sunday to fund his travel. The rest of the cost is added to his credit card. Funding from Team USA did not begin until he made the team in early June,  and even that was limited.

"Gymnastics or track and field,  the level of support received from USOC is consistent to the medals they deliver, " said Jose Rodriquez,  CEO of USA Judo. "It is our hope that as we improve,  our funding will improve."

Rodriquez said in the past three years,  the budget for judo has tripled. But while USA Judo also supports the athletes on a longer term by providing training centers - such as the one Stevens trains at in New York - it is still up to the individuals to travel to various events.

"It's very tough, " Stevens said. "Things need to be done. You have to go."

His family was aware of the sacrifices necessary early on. Stevens approached his mom when he was beginning a serious bid for the Olympics eight years ago and said,  "Mom,  if I'm going to make it,  we're going to be broke."

Given Stevens' talent and his love for the sport,  it was an investment the family did not hesitate to make.

"It was rough going,  and it still is going to be rough going, " Anna Stevens said.

"But I've had a lot of support. He's such a natural at the sport that there wasn't a reason for him not to go. People said don't worry about it. People said they'd help me out."

True to its word,  the community has managed to keep Stevens' hopes alive. Family members and several local dojos - practice halls for martial arts - have chipped in. The generosity has not gone unnoticed by Stevens,  who said he looks forward to running his own club one day,  maybe even the one at the Lakewood YMCA.

But for now,  there is little time for Stevens to look that far ahead. He is focused on the Olympics next month in Beijing,  and then 2012 in London.

"I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for these people. It's really relaxing here, " Stevens said.

"But I'm eager to get back and start training again. I realize it's not over yet. Just because you made the team,  you still have to perform once you're there,  so there's no rest."

Travis Stevens File

Born: Feb. 28,  1986

Hometown: Tacoma

Weight category: 81 kg (178.57 pounds)

Personal: Born in Tacoma,  Stevens began judo at the age of 6 and won the U.S. Junior Nationals when he was 8. Stevens attended Rogers Elementary School and Stewart Middle School in Tacoma,  before going to high school at Auburn Riverside. He now trains at the Jason Morris Judo Center in New York.

Career Highlights

2008: Clinched spot on U.S. Olympic Team;  Pan American Championships,  silver medal

2007: USA Judo Senior National Championships,  gold;  Pan American Games,  gold

2006: U.S. Open,  gold;  Fall Classic National Championships,  gold