Travis Stevens: "People forget about medals, only fighters remain"
His face could make him act in a Sergio Leone’s movie. His fingers plastered until his wrists and his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu turned him into a nightmare as soon as his opponent put a knee on the floor: aged 30 and after ten attempts (3 Olympic Games, 7 World Championships), the Pedro’s student and Marti Malloy's old partner finally reached on August 9th, 2016 the silver Olympic medal that his perseverance deserved. As a bonus to the article we wrote about him in EDJ#64 – to be released on October 1st -, here is a rare and short interview with the man behind the medal, a tough guy getting aged by failures, life’s challenges and all that he learned thanks to the numerous competitions ended sit in the crowd. If you search for a synonym of the verb “to fight”, just try "Travis Stevens".
A French version of this interview is available here.
Jimmy Pedro and Travis Stevens: two Olympic bronze medals and a World title for the coach, and now a silver medal for the athlete ©Paco Lozano/L'Esprit du judo
What are the main differences between the Travis who ended 5th in London and the one who ended with a silver medal four years later in Rio?
The support of my relatives. Everyone of my team members and coaches felt like I was robbed in the semi of London. Over the course of the quad everyone pulled together to ensure that I would not be denied a second time from stepping on the podium. Having Kelita Zupancic, my girlfriend, by my side through the quad helped more that I'm probably willing to admit. She has taught me a lot over the years.
In Chelyabinsk 2014 you told me that you had to think about why you didn't manage to have a medal in WC or OG. What did you change in your preparation to reach that goal today, aged 30?
One day, I was sitting in the hospital dealing with my knee. No one was allowed to see me, so I had a lot of time to reflect on judo as a whole and my career. I came to the realization that no one remembers who medaled at the Games or World championships. Those competitions just feed the egos of athletes. They are not a direct reflection of how talented an athlete is. I even put it to the test asking people who medaled at a particular weight class at an event and people would stumble or struggle to remember. The fighters people remember are the ones who were touched emotionally or have invested interest in a fighter. So I told myself this, I've been a top 5 player in the world since 2011 (I dropped out a few times but over all) I've proven that I was one of the best players in the division. I don't need a WC or OG medal to prove anything. People forget about medals, only fighters remains.
His last victory over Avtandil Tchrikishvili, world #1 from Georgia, was in... London. Choking him in semi-final on August 9th, 2016, Travis Stevens forget about his 2012' trauma agains Ole Bischof from Germany. Aged 30, it's his first worldwide medal.
©Paco Lozano/L'Esprit du judo
You were talking about your knee. Last year, you were close to cut your leg off. What happened exactly?
In July 2015, I had come off a Pan Am Games gold medal in Toronto, Canada. The night that I had won I got on a plane and flew directly to Russia for the Tyumen Grand Slam, where I had to weigh in five days later. All my bags got lost and I had to lose 10kg with just a sauna over two days. My immune system became non-existent. Over the course of the weight cut I had gotten an infection in my knee. I couldn’t shake the hand of my opponent in Tyumen, Ciano from Italy, because I had to run to the toilets to throw up. When I got home the swelling got worse and worse by the time Worlds came around, there were days I couldn't put weight on it to walk. I had seen five doctors and none of them could figure out what the issue was.
But you managed to fight in Astana [he got choked in his first match by Alexander Wieczerzak from Germany, ed]. What happened after that?
After the Worlds, I went home and they rushed me to the emergency room and almost cut my leg off to stop the infection from spreading. They hospitalized me for seven days and I went in for surgery a few days after stabilizing the infection from spreading. I spent the next two months doing in home care, where a nurse would visit me three times a week. The infection was attacking my skin, muscle, and bone in my leg. After a successful surgery, the surgeon told me I'll need a knee replacement later on for the damage done to the bone.
You also had this concussion in Düsseldorf 2015 which made you stay at home a couple of weeks wearing sun glasses, you are known on the Tour as one of the men with the most destroyed fingers... How is your body for your old days?
It’s quite better since a couple of months [He smiles]. This past year I have worked with the USOC and Scott Georgaklis, a new trainer, and both of them have made me healthier than ever. I'm so thankful that I was able to put together six months of injury free training which was a first in my career. Although my hands are damaged beyond repair we found ways to work around them.
In Rio you gave a lesson to the world with your Newaza skills. How do you explain such a difference of level with the other players?
I don't see it as if I have good Newaza. It's just neglect by the rest of the world. A lot of top players at camps choose not to do Newaza. I'm not even sure if they train it at home or just use it for a warm up. Kayla and I both made the Olympic final using almost entirely ground work.
With his girlfriend Kelita Zupancic from Canada, 7th in the -70kg category in Rio
©Travis Stevens/L'Esprit du judo
What are your plans now? September ’16 looks a little bit funnier than September ’15, right? And I guess you’re not weighing exactly 81kg right now [Smile]…
Considering I'm not in a hospital bed this year it's going a lot better [He smiles]. And yes, I currently haven’t stepped on a scale so I have no idea how much I weigh. All though with that being said I know I couldn’t make weight for 81 [He laughs]. Since the Games have ended I have been on the road seeing family. I’ve spent a week in Toronto visiting Kelita’s family and a week in Seattle visiting mine. Then we both go on vacation to a beach in North Carolina. Then it’s back to training life in October. I’ve also finished setting up my new school Fuji Gym. I’m also in negociations with USA Judo to figure out my future if i’m going to continue competing and training. Right now I don’t have any competitions for USA Judo for the rest of the year. But I am competing just for TSV Abensberg at the Golden League Final in December. I’m really looking forward to it as well.
Interview by Anthony Diao
Read more about Travis Stevens and Kayla Harrison’s roads to Rio’s Olympic podium in the forthcoming EDJ#64, on stores on October 1st, 2016.