The two minutes he savored on a Rio de Janeiro podium with an Olympic medal hanging over his heart fulfilled a lifelong ambition for Tacoma native Travis Stevens, but the thrill came at a cost.
A perfectionist whose desire to compete is exceeded only by his passion to train, Stevens has been ordered by his USA Judo coaches to chill for a few months. Reboot and rewind, he was told. Don’t start thinking about tomorrow — get acclimated with a world where ordinary people outnumber the intensely focused gym rats by a ratio of about a million-to-one.
A month into his exile, Stevens can’t wait to end the vacation he never wanted.
“I’m not a fan,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t sleep right, because I’ve got so much energy that hasn’t been used. I get out of bed and realize my only task for the day is to relax and enjoy the moment. It makes for some long days, because I want to head for the gym and go to work.”
Stevens enjoyed a brief respite from the imposed sabbatical the other night, where the Lakewood YMCA’s Ippon Judo Club held a homecoming party for the silver medalist who grew up a block from Lincoln High School. After posing for photos and signing autographs, Stevens showed some moves for the grownups in the club.
When Stevens strolled into the lobby of the YMCA, coffee cup in hand, he had the laid-back look of a museum patron. That dozens of children waved congratulatory placards and cheered his arrival produced the shy smile of somebody incapable of regarding himself as a big shot.
Stevens then casually mingled with well-wishers in the same auxiliary gym room where he developed the skills to qualify for three Summer Olympics.
But when he taped his fingers and took the mat for some warm-up grappling with longtime training partner Byron Redditt, Stevens’ facial expression changed from free and easy to game-on, dude.
“Travis is so kind and gentle — he’s got this humble heart — and then he’s able to go into a warrior mode,” said Stevens’ girlfriend Kelita Zupancic, a world-ranked judo champion who competed for Team Canada in Rio. “It’s hard to put into words what it was like watching him, the way he went out there with zero nerves. But I guess ‘phenomenal’ is probably a good one.”
Some 11,000 athletes traveled to the Summer Games, which means there were 11,000 different stories about the dedication required to rank among the elite of the elite. Of those 11,000 stories, few were more remarkable than that of Stevens, whose road to Rio was impeded by a 2015 concussion severe enough to disable him for two-and-a-half months.
While waiting for clearance to compete again, Stevens noticed the ubiquitous presence of his girlfriend. He couldn’t place her face.
“I asked our team manager who she was,” he would recall, “because she kept staring at me like I had just killed her dog.”
Stevens’ foggy brain finally unscrambled in July, around the time a staph infection in his right knee returned him to the hospital. Hard-wired to fight through pain, Stevens had been fighting with a knee that couldn’t bend.
But he survived, and qualified for the Rio Games as a 30-year old long shot in a rigorous event where 30 translates as “old timer.”
In a sport as complex as judo — part wrestling, part cage-match martial arts, part gymnastics, all superseded by the sophisticated strategy a grand master brings to a chess match — Stevens’ old-timer status proved to be an advantage.
There was a reason for those “zero nerves.” He understood he belonged.
“It finally sank when I woke up the morning of the first day of competition,” Stevens said. “When you prepare for something like the Olympics, there’s always another day, another week, another month, and now it was in front of me. I knew was going to get a medal.
“That’s when I told my coaches, ‘I’m going to shock the world.’”
An Auburn Riverside grad who attended San Jose State — home of America’s most accomplished collegiate judo program — Stevens now makes his home in Boston. But it was in Tacoma where, as a seven-year old, he was signed up for a sports recreation activity at a South End community center and unwittingly found himself in a judo class.
“We drove around Tacoma for six hours,” Stevens said on Wednesday. “Lots of precious old memories.”
He may have returned to his birthplace as an honored guest, but the silver medal Stevens owns was forged by the blue-collar ethics of his hometown.
“There’s this perception that athletes, especially as it pertains to the Olympics, have to achieve an ‘elite’ level at a fairly early age,” said Jason Harai, head coach of the Ippon Judo Club and son of the late coach who taught Stevens the basics. “Gymnastics, swimming, you name it. If you’re not participating among the elite — and paying the traveling expenses that go along with that — there’s probably no chance you’re ever going to win an Olympic medal.
“Travis came from our judo program, free to YMCA members, and won a silver medal. We’re so proud.”
As Harai spoke, Stevens was exchanging clutches and counter-clutches and whatever-else clutches are needed to beat an opponent in judo.
The moves looked smooth. The vacation needs work.