Stevens, who grew up in Tacoma, has qualified in judo for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He does not take this sport lightly, knowing he has the opportunity of a lifetime to compete on this stage.
LAKEWOOD — Two-time Olympian Travis Stevens stands toward the back of the mat, hands folded across his chest, a scowl on his scruffy face.
“Yeah, that was not good,” he says to a group of top Northwest Judo competitors on a recent Sunday afternoon at the YMCA Ippon Judo Dojo club.
“That was not good at all,” he repeats, shaking his head. “Everyone get down and give me 50 push-ups.”
Stevens, who has qualified in judo for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, doesn’t mince words.
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“He doesn’t joke a lot. Doesn’t talk a lot. But when he gets on those mats, he’s a different person. That’s where you get more than two words out of him. That’s where he feels most comfortable,” says Jason Harai, one of Stevens’ coaches growing up. “But you don’t mess around on the mats when he’s here. This is his livelihood, and he takes it serious.”
For Stevens, most mornings begin with a throbbing headache and little feeling in his left shoulder.
Then, maybe, coffee with sugar and cream and a doughnut before the first training session.
Judo goes from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Jiu jitsu is 1 to 2:30 p.m.
Then, lunch. Maybe a nap.
Stevens, who grew up in Tacoma but now trains mostly in Wakefield, Mass., goes back for Round 2 of judo from 6 to 8 p.m.
Then it’s back to jiu jitsu from 8 to 9:30 p.m.
“I consider myself a hard worker, but somehow he always finds a way to push me past my limit,” training partner Colton Brown says.
“He is an extremely competitive person and has a refuse-to-lose mentality. He shows up to training with that mentality each day and tries to do whatever it takes to win. There have been days where we have nearly gotten into fistfights on the mat, but afterwards go and have dinner with each other. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Travis and his work ethic while training.”
Even traveling doesn’t get in the way of workouts, and Stevens does a lot of flying.
On the way to Cuba to fight in the Pan American Championships in late March, Stevens, dressed in a black rubber sweatsuit, ran sprints at the Miami International Airport’s parking garage to keep loose and cut weight.
“He grew up in an era where there were no excuses,” Harai said. “He learned Judo back in the day when you didn’t get water breaks, there wasn’t air conditioning at the dojo, where it was all about discipline and this old-school Japanese mentality. If he didn’t break then, he’s not going to break now.”
Price of victory is high
The road to Rio, to these Olympic Games, has been trying.
“The concussion was a big one where I had conversations with my coaches and USA Judo where we asked the question of, ‘Could I even get to that level again?’ ” Stevens said.
The stage was the Dusseldorf Grand Prix in Germany. It was March 2015. Stevens, competing against France’s Alain Schmitt, a world bronze medalist in 2013, went for a big judo throw — uchi mata — and nailed it, tossing Schmitt in the air and flat on his back.
“I believe I broke his clavicle and fractured his shoulder,” Stevens said.
But the 30-year-old Stevens also took a beating, hitting his head hard when he landed.
Watch the match on YouTube, and you can hear the smack of his head.
Stevens’ hand was raised, but he lost much more than what he gained in the months following the tournament.
He remembers little of what immediately happened afterward.
His team manager and doctor found him in the corner of a room on the floor, rocking back and forth, whistling to himself.
The doctor was in his face — “But I pushed him away,” Stevens said.
And he didn’t recognize his girlfriend of a year-and-a-half.
“I asked our team manager who she was, because she kept staring at me like I had just killed her dog,” he said.
The night in the hotel was fuzzy, and the following months were full of stress, headaches, vomiting and dizziness.
He finally got back to training after a 2½-month hiatus.
“I tried a couple of times before that, because as my days would go on I felt functionally OK,” Stevens said. “But then once I started going up and down or my heart would start to beat faster and faster I would just get dizzy, and you would see me start to walk and I was tilting to the left. I was able to still medal at Pan Ams (in April), and then I fought some higher-level tournaments after that, and I just lost in the first round every time. That’s when we decided to pull me from training. I couldn’t function.”
Things got worse before they got better.
In July, Stevens contracted Cellulitis, Staph and MRSA in his right knee after competing in the Grand Slam in Russia. With the world championships around the corner, there was no time for rest.
Then he got bursitis in his knee and was vomiting during every training session. But he pushed ahead.
His warm-up for the world tournament, held in Khazakstan in August, consisted of walking in a circle, then onto the mats.
Stevens won three matches before dropping out, but his knee was damaged further and swelled up at the tournament.
Back home, his doctor drained it and gave him some antibiotics.
Then he went on vacation.
“I spent most of the time on the couch or in bed,” Stevens said. “I remember waking up every day in puddles of sweat.”
He returned to his doctor, who told him to rush to the hospital.
There, the surgeon drained 380 CC’s of an orange-like fluid from his knee and warned him to take heed in the future.
“They told me they would have had to cut my leg off if I had come in two or three days later,” Stevens said.
“That’s how bad the bacterial infection was.”
Carrying the weight of the team
A photo of Stevens from the 2012 Olympic Games has famously floated around the Internet. There’s blood in Steven’s mouth and tape wrapped around his head. It’s from his semifinal match in the 81-kg division, which he lost in a controversial judges decision to 2008 champ Ole Bischof.
“My grandfather died last year,” he said afterward. “And this pretty much feels the same way.”
Stevens does not take this sport lightly. He knows how talented he is. He knows how strong he is. And he knows that he has the opportunity of a lifetime to compete on this stage.
“It’s not just about me, it’s about my coaches, it’s about my training partners,” he says. “As much as I sacrifice, you should see the brutality and what we do to our training partners that don’t get the chance to step on the Olympic field. They don’t take the beatings for nothing.
“They’re just as much as part of the journey as I am. We set a goal, and it’s about getting there, one way or another.”