Ending an Elite Athletic Career as an Athlete on the Spectrum
When I was twelve years old I was told that I was on the autism spectrum. In hindsight, having spent the entire day speaking to the staff at Boston Childrens hospital about the differences between various kinds of skinks may have given them a hint. I’m not sure if this was a relief or a moment of frustration for my parents. I had spent years with tutors, and had significant difficulty learning how to read. They had been told that I would never ride a bike. Shortly afterwards, I was brought to a judo dojo. While my parents initially assumed my brother would take to the martial art, it became my hyper focus. Suddenly science wasn’t the only thing I thought about anymore. Much to the surprise of everyone, many of my physical difficulties began to disappear. I no longer needed occupational therapy, my grades improved, and being surrounded by Olympic hopefuls every practice at Pedro’s Judo Club gave me a new life goal. I wanted to compete at the Olympic games. By the time I went to college, I was the number two junior athlete in the country. Soon I would be ranked in the top 10 senior athletes.
When I knew I wasn’t going to the London Olympics as a competitor, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. Even as I was selecting my classes to go to Harvard, where I took classes as a special student before I was accepted to Indiana University, I couldn’t help but feel taken up by the spirit of the Olympic Games. I wanted to make another run but knew that I should not. While I was good at judo, and had been on the national roster for years, I hadn’t come close to making the Olympics. That was when the part of me that loved science made an agreement with the part of me that loved judo. If I stayed physically active and studied brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ), that I could let myself pursue graduate school without feeling the guilt and remorse that often comes when you retire from high-level athletics. While I still struggled with it, I was able to push it aside enough to relocate a thousand miles away from my home to pursue my masters.
While at IU I continued to stay active. I was fortunate that there were several BJJ dojos in town with quality training partners. Dr. Rhadi Ferguson started to coach me again, to help me get used to my new sport and stay on track with my studies. I even fought the 2014 world championships in BJJ, which turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of my life. Still, I intentionally kept judo at an arms distance away for that first year.
That next summer I spent at home. I got to get on the mat at my home dojo a few times a week and generally got to live the life of a grappling bum one more time as I prepared for my second year of grad school.
The second year was active. I got engaged, and found my off the mat challenges were much more difficult than the first year. A judo club began to organize at IU. I helped to get it established and found myself a head coach years before I thought I’d ever get to hold that role.
I didn’t have any access to high-level black belts. A few brown or black belts were in town who could train with me, but for the most part, I didn’t have anyone who could push me on the feet. I started focusing on technical details that I never paid much attention to when I was competing the first time around. I developed a series of foot sweeps and found ways to compensate for my damaged shoulder. While I knew I wasn’t in the physical condition I had been previously, I felt like technically I was better than I was just three years before.
The weekend before I was to leave on a vacation in Japan I was caught in a shoulder lock by an over-zealous blue belt. The next morning my shoulder, which already had 5 screws in it, was frozen. I could not lift my left arm. The next day it improved, and I gave a guest lecture on yoko tomoenage while barely being able to lift my arm to 45 degrees (I offered to come back and teach it at a later date if it was unsatisfactory). I flew to Japan with an arm sling. After a few days, the pain abated, and I was back on the mat.
At the Osaka Kodokan, I realized just how out of shape I was. Not even an hour into the practice and I was heaving. Still, I pushed through but found after an hour it was time to leave. I knew there were other mats I wanted to visit while I was there, and getting hurt would prevent me from doing so. I began to swallow my pride when something happened.
I wasn’t fully aware of my surroundings, being into the deep sort of fight or flight mode that is common during hard training. I looked across the mat, and a man very openly challenged me. What I didn’t see, which my traveling companion later told me about, was that before challenging me he had gotten the attention of some of the people around him. Having trained in Japan before, I knew what this was. He was going to show the foreigner how real judo was played. In 2010 when I first went to Japan, I had dealt with similar situations and found even when overmatched, I could keep my head above water. I knew that this would be more difficult, and the part of me that called for reason was soon drowned out.
Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for him, his judo was more or less a clone of a close friend. He was a left sided uchimata player who favored trying to see which person had the better uchimata (a beautiful judo throw that is the mainstay of many judo players). If you did, in fact, have the better uchimata, he would attempt to counter it by stepping over. The effect of the style creates a tremendous invisible feeling of forward pressure. It forces you into a binary choice: attack with uchimata and he will step over you, attempt to counter his uchimata and take a major risk. The easy counter to this style is a backward sweeping attack done by faking a forward technique and causing them to overcompensate, allowing you to throw them to the rear. Against a competent judoka, this will only be available once, if you’re lucky. Having years of experience fighting this style of judoka, I recognized it instantly.
He wasn’t good, which I am to this day thankful for. He was competent, but with a dulled reaction time, I knew where he was moving before he did. Soon the match became heavily one-sided, with him appearing angrier every time he got back up from a throw. Finally, after landing an uchimata sukashi (a highly technical throw requiring you to side step your opponents uchimata and counter it with your own), the buzzer went off.
I started to bow, and as I did he regripped me and tried to enter into a throw right away. I blocked it and realized we were going for round 2. I remember explicitly thinking to myself that I would really enjoy this situation if I was only in good enough shape. Instead, I found myself in a knock down drag out fight with a very flustered judoka while fighting off an asthma attack. The second round continued much in the way of the first round, only as time went on it got dirtier. He head butted me with an ouchi gari attempt, and I started putting him in armbars and strangle holds the moment we would hit the ground. After the end of the second round I tried to walk away, and he grabbed me and said in English “not until I throw you”. Our fight continued until I attempted to let him throw me. He detected it and blocked me as I tried to exit the mat. I started attempting flying armbars after this. Finally, after 20 minutes of fighting, he entered into a backward throw and I let myself just go over.
After bowing and fixing my gi I collapsed next to my friend who was sitting on the sideline. As I struggled to catch my breath he told me that was the best I had ever looked on the judo mat. Struggling to stand I thanked the Senseis running the mat, and I found myself crawling up to the second floor, where I changed back into my street clothes. I hadn’t been in a situation like that in many years. After I caught my breath, I suddenly realized how much I had missed that.
A few days later I was sitting in the monastery where my friend and I were staying during our visit to Kyoto. We had decided we wanted to train with Kosen judo players. Kosen judo was the first major style to splinter off Kodokan judo and is known for its emphasis on high-level groundwork. It is often compared to Brazilian Jiujitsu, though it has a far smaller number of practitioners. The only place I could get in contact with was Kyoto International University. I knew how difficult university judo practices were in Japan. I knew that going there would be an incredible risk. I told my friend, who was taking the night off, that if I wasn’t back by a certain time, something had happened, and I took a cab.
I would graduate in December and hopefully go back to living on the east coast where I could find quality training partners. In my mind, this was to be the first practice of what I viewed as my comeback to judo. I was terrified. I was genuinely terrified of what might happen at that practice. When I got there, we warmed up, and I quickly found I had nothing to worry about. The club was small compared to Tsukuba or the places I had trained. Everyone was friendly. In fact, I wasn’t able to participate in the majority of the practice, which was a fight off to determine who would represent the school in a coming competition. I got to watch their fight off, and observe how they grappled. I was fascinated in looking at the similarities and differences between how they approached different positions from what I had been taught in Brazilian Jiujitsu and mainstream judo. The next night I returned with my friend in tow and enjoyed a full practice. Fighting against excellent judo black belts who had ground games at the level of BJJ purple and brown belts was a joy. When I think of the type of grappler I want to be, they provided me the model. My training with the Kosen judoka taught me something: there is only a finite number of ways two human bodies can interact, and thus we never truly discover a new technique. We can only rediscover movements, and ultimately despite everyone arguing that their grappling style is the best, there exists a unified theory of grappling that everyone after a certain point regardless of their competition format intuitively recognizes and implements.
During the following summer, I trained at an excellent Brazilian jiujitsu dojo most nights after my internship. I made occasional appearances at a friends’ judo dojo and generally made the effort to start getting back into shape. It wasn’t easy in the summer heat, but I was doing the best I could. By the time I got back to Indiana, I was ready to start getting into shape to compete at the national championships.
I started lifting and grappling every day again. I began to make gains in the weight room and felt much stronger in practice. My students were getting better, and now I more people in both the judo and BJJ clubs who were competent on their feet. Things were going along excellent, and I began to formulate a plan in my head about how to go about fighting nationals assuming I found work after graduation.
One day while benching, I heard a strange sound come from my bad shoulder. I was used to it making a series of odd sounds. I can only hope I was the only one that ever heard it. The next day my shoulder was frozen again, only worse. This time it took me a full three weeks before I could do any upper body lifting again, and in training, I was grappling with only one functional arm. I scratched off competing in the spring, and quite possibly competing ever again.
Alex gave me some advice in building out a rehab plan, and I went about doing so. Soon it felt normal again, but being late in the semester I didn’t have time to really return to the training I was doing before. By this point, thoughts of returning to judo in a significant way started to fade but I didn’t mind. I had accepted a great job as an environmental scientist in DC. I knew there was some solid judo there, as well as an excellent BJJ school that I had wanted to train at for many years. The best part was that my fiance and I could move in together, and I could begin paying for my wedding the following November.
Once we got to DC initially I was happy being the BJJ mat four or five days a week. I started to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my grappling career, especially now where I felt like I was healthy. One day at work, I felt a twinge of sadness. The part me I had made that agreement with, that if I stayed physically active and studied BJJ while in grad school, that it would let me study in peace came knocking.
I signed up for the Liberty Bell Championships. While it’s no Olympics, the Liberty Bell championships are one of the toughest national level tournaments in the United States and was always one of the hardest days on my competition schedule when I was training full time. It’s also a special tournament for me because I won an award there I’m very proud of. If I placed in the top 3, I would be back on the national roster. As a black belt, the best I had ever done was 4th place. I told myself if I won a few matches, I could think about trying to do nationals the next year. If I went out there and lost, that would be the end.
I had five weeks to train for it. I didn’t have enough time to go through a full strength and conditioning plan to prepare, but I made one ad hoc out of exercises I knew I could still do. I started going to judo once or twice a week, jumping in between the various clubs in the area. I knew I didn’t need to have my stand up skills near where they were four years before, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be in shape. My best bet, if I was going to place at all, would be to be just good enough on the feet that I could survive until the match got to the ground. If the match got to the ground I could deploy all of the skills I had spent time developing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu practice over the last few years.
The judo practices were brutal. I trained with an excellent judoka from Columbia who was much better than me multiple times a night, and my lungs felt like they were going to give out. While I technically had no problems with the brown belts, they were in “judo” shape and I was not. Things were no easier at BJJ, where though things were better on the conditioning front, I was challenged technically on the ground in ways I wouldn’t be challenged in judo. There really wasn’t an easy night of practice for me.
The day before the tournament I drove to Alex’s place in Philly. After the weigh in we chowed down on some good food and watched Dragon Ball Z. The next day I put on the sweatsuit for the team I had represented my whole judo career and we made our way to the tournament. After a quick but technical warm up, I got ready to get on the mat at a national tournament for the first time in four years.
My first match was a rematch against an opponent I had beaten years before at the same tournament. While the first time we fought was one sided, this time it was much closer. I threw him with a shoulder throw early on for a big score. My tournament rust however, was quickly becoming an issue. I kept stepping out of bounds and soon found myself with three penalties and too much time left on the clock to risk a mistake, for a fourth penalty would end the match. Unable to burn the clock during the last minute, I made a mistake that my opponent took excellent advantage of. He threw me with a beautiful throw combination. Suddenly the score was tied, and I was down by three penalties. The next exchange I threw him for what I thought was a score, but it was waived off. Despite having won the majority of exchanges, and nearly beating him on the ground on a few occasions, I had lost my first match. My only thought was: “Not like this. I don’t want to go out like this.”
I put my nose down and recollected myself. My thought was to just take it one match at a time, if I get lucky, maybe I string a few wins together. My next opponent was a brown belt who tried to engage with me on the ground. I passed his guard with an over-under pass and pinned him in under a minute. My next match was against a blind judoka. I’m not sure what his actual experience level was, but I applaud him for competing in the elite sighted black belt division. I ended the match quickly with a yoko tomoenage to transition into an omoplata which became a pin.
Thankfully the first two matches were easy because my next two matches I knew would not be so. I next drew one of the losers of the semi-final round. During the match, I was fighting well on the feet but I was being pushed hard. What limited conditioning I had was spent, and I now was left fighting on fumes. During a crucial moment where it felt like I might mentally break, one of the parents from my home club had come over and started rooting for me. It gave me enough reinforcement to straighten my head out and keep pushing. After a firemans carry attempt gave me a significant lead, I was again on the back foot trying to run down the clock. My opponent had figured out my game plan, and now was successfully blocking my attempts to bring our match to the ground, and came dangerously close to countering one for a score. Despite knowing I wanted the match to go to the ground, he attacked me there when he finally got his opportunity. I countered his senkaku technique and took his back, landing a sliding collar choke.
The choke on any of the people I had been training with during my BJJ practices would have failed. I didn’t have a lot of control of his upper body and was getting ready to transition into an armbar when I felt him tap. When I rolled off of him I suddenly realized I had matched my highest placing at this tournament.
In the bronze medal match, I had a rematch against the man I beat in the final of junior nationals when we were 18. That day, almost ten years ago, I had fought him twice. The first match was a first round nail-biter I won on a single penalty. The tournament had a double elimination format, and he fought all the way through the loser’s bracket to meet me again in the final. That match I threw him in 8 seconds. While I was confident, I knew that those wins were many years ago, and they didn’t count today. He had just beaten the man I lost to.
I opened the account with a foot sweep my father taught me in the kitchen when I was 13. At IU I had finally turned it into a consistent weapon. I only got a wazari and missed my opportunity to follow up with a pin. Despite the early lead, the minutes that followed were not easy. For the first time all day I felt threatened on the ground. He didn’t make the mistakes the others had made, and had he been a hair quicker or this had been four years earlier he may have pinned or arm locked me on a few occasions. I dominated the grip fighting and eventually threw him for the second wazari to win the match. It was the same throw I beat him with all those years before. I rolled over and started to cry, I had just beaten my best result at this tournament.
I lost the match for second, which truthfully didn’t last long. I was spent and didn’t really have anything left physically or emotionally. My opponent timed a beautiful counter, and walking off the mat I didn’t really care. I was on the medal podium at the national level.
A few months later my shoulder came out of its socket. While through the years this had happened, this time it was different. I immediately lost substantial use of it after it popped back in, and I was in a ton of pain. I left the practice early and went home. After a few days, it felt normal again, and I went back to practice. The next day I was in tremendous pain. I got an MRI and there is a rotator cuff tear, and two new labrum tears that I suspect were what caused my shoulder to freeze twice last year.
Having completed my shoulder surgery I know it means my competition career in judo is over. While I’ve struggled with the idea that my time in the sun as a competitor is over with for a while now, it is after all, hard to admit that your Olympic dream is over, this hasn’t been as hard to take as I thought it would be. I was very upset for a few days, and there were definitely some tears shed, but I came to realize some things.
When I first started judo I didn’t have enough to coordination to turn while jogging and put a hole in the wall with my knee. When I was a child I was told I would never ride a bike. In my athletic career I got to train alongside Olympians, UFC fighters, and other elite athletes. I got to perform on the national level, and build some amazing friendships. I get to retire while still on the US Elite roster. I’ve gotten to do some really amazing things.
At what has turned out to be my last judo tournament I got to use all those skills I was trying to develop while I was in grad school, ranging from my footsweeps to de la riva guard. I did it with the support of close friends. I even got the best result I ever had there. If Liberty Bell is my judo tournament, I can happily live with that. Leaving a competition career behind means leaving many things I loved, but I get to keep the best parts:
the memories and the friendships.