After sustaining severe injuries in the Judo Pan American Championships one year ago, Mel had made a spectacularly fast recovery and fought her way to this Jiu-Jitsu Pan American Championships, only to find herself sick the day of her matches. Fighting ill at one of the biggest championships of the year worldwide, she needing to dominate every fight to stay in the competition. By relying on her team, her resilience, and that UFO spirit to never quit, Mel shares how she came out on top.
My game plan was different now that I had to factor a severe lack of energy into my strategy on the mat. I weighed in and saw that I could eat a little bit more and still be on weight later in the day. After filling my stomach with some food I made my way to the warm-up area.
Feeling terrible, I didn’t have any extra energy to spare for a regular warm up so I broke it up into manageable stages.
Then my name was called - it was Game Time.
All manor of work went into meticulously preparing for this big day: I was sure to eat to maintain the proper weight for my division, I got as much rest as I could, tapered my training and mentally prepared myself to dominate in my “top” style of fighting.
Then, I woke up the morning of the fight, flu-ridden.
Frustration set in. How could I be ill at the Pan Am Championships? Perched on the edge of the hotel bed and told myself that I had to put aside the frustration and regroup and re-strategize my whole day--I had to view my sickness as a simple bump in the road to roll right over. Besides, I'd been through worse.
At 18 I started Judo, dedicating heart and soul to training. I broke bones, trained overseas in the harshest conditions, struggled with cutting weight for my divisions and lost many many more matches than I won. It all had the effect of driving me harder in practice and in my goal of making the US National Judo Team for the Rio Olympics this year.
As things would turn out, last year at the Judo Pan American Championships in Argentina I injured my left knee. Unable to compete, I flew home with crushed spirits to undergo another knee surgery for ACL reconstruction and meniscus repair (I had undergone surgery for my right knee only the year before). In April of last year, the heartbreak of preparing for another knee surgery - and the accompanying 12 months of rehabilitation - was more painful than the broken knee itself - this second major injury had derailed any hopes of making the US National Team for the 2016 Olympics.
Making it through round two of knee rehabilitation, I’ve come back to a high-level championship with more grit than ever, even with a flu.
Steeling myself, I walked into the mats with the determination that got me here.
The fights were single elimination, meaning that if I lost one match I was out of the entire competition. Knowing this, I went into each fight holding nothing back, listening intently for the shouts of my coach and teammates to help guide me. I won my first and second fights by a joint lock submissions, my third on points and the fourth by dominating in a top position.
The gold medal match was going to be against someone I had fought twice before, and had lost to - twice. At this point in the tournament, the jitters I always have in the first couple of matches were gone. I was extremely exhausted from the previous matches and felt my energy draining by the minute, tugging at my focus.
I waited patiently for my last match to show up on the screen and to be called to the mats again. This opponent knew my game and I knew hers. It was going to be my toughest match of the day.
Digging deep I acted quickly from the start and managed to dominate the majority of the fight by keeping her on her back and putting her on the defensive positionally.
In the last 15 seconds, profound exhaustion set in; we scrambled for holds and grips but before I knew it I had slipped into a dangerous position. Where previously I was on top putting pressure on her and had gotten points from establishing that hold, now my back was exposed to my opponent. If she was able to wrap her legs around my hips to establish control, a position that earns a lot of points, I would lose the match.
My teammates’ voices quadrupled in volume and my coach began screaming for me to block her hooking legs. We rolled over, somersaulted, and fought, as I put everything I had left into blocking my hips with my hands. Those last ten seconds felt like years, but finally, the buzzer went off, the ref stopped us, and I had just won Pan Ams.
I am so proud of my win, but I also know that victory does not happen in a vacuum. The process of rebuilding oneself over time can be as formative as it is difficult. I was able to use my time of injury as a period to better develop myself. I couldn’t have developed without the support of teammates, mentors and family; from every struggle, the support I have continues to be a defining factor in every push to go further than I have before.