When Jason Morris sent Brad Bolen and Kyle Vashkulat off to the Pan American Championships, his expectations for the two young students of his judo center were modest.
“It was mainly to get the more experience,” said Morris. “Brad is a relative youngster in the sport, and Kyle is only 19.”
The duo came back from last weekend’s event in El Salvador with medals that assured them of berths on the U.S. team that will compete in the World Championships later this year.
Bolen, 21, came up with a stunner, winning the 66kg tournament in his first time on a senior national team. Vashkulat recovered from a first-round loss to place third at 110kg.
“I wanted to at least be in the top three,” said Bolen, who began his four-match run by beating Jose Gonzalez of Honduras in less than one minute.
Two more wins got Bolen into the gold-medal match, where he faced Carlos Figueroa of the host country.
“Once I got past the semifinals, I wanted to win,” said Bolen, who moved from Illinois to train at the Jason Morris Judo Center three years ago. “The home crowd was going crazy.”
Until Bolen threw Figueroa for ippon (instant win) 2:42 into their match.
Not only did the win lock up the gold medal, but it also secured Bolen’s spot atop the national rankings, assuring him a place in the World Championships, which will run Sept. 8-13 in Tokyo.
“It’s the first senior tournament I’ve ever won, so it was pretty intense,” said Bolen. “And it’s great for my confidence. Now, I know I can go with guys at that level.”
Vashkulat ran into a personal nemesis in his first match.
“Same guy I lost to last year,” he said of Mexico’s Sergio Garcia. “He’s a tall lefty, and you don’t see a lot of lefties, especially in my weight class.
“I just refocused after that. I knew I should be on the podium at the end of the day.”
Vashkulat threw Carlos Santiago for ippon in his second match, putting him into the bronze-medal match against one of his idols in the sport, Scott Edward of Canada.
“He’s a little older than me, and he’s one of the guys I’ve always admired,” said Vashkulat, who beat the Canadian champion at Rendez-Vous Canada last year.
This time, Vashkulat was down by two penalties before he threw Edward for ippon with two seconds remaining in their match.
“It was kind of weird,” said Vashkulat, who has been with Morris for five years, relocating from Langhorne, Pa. “I was happy I won, but I felt for Scott. He was cool about it, though.”
Vashkulat also earned the top spot in the U.S. rankings heading into next month’s Senior Nationals in Myrtle Beach, S.C. No matter the outcome of that event, he will join Bolen on the World Team roster.
“Judo changed it this year, so every country has two entries at the World Championships,” said Morris. “That’s why what they did was so huge, it locked them into the World team.”
While their ranking will protect them at the Nationals, Morris is sending them to the event as part of a group from his club.
“They still need the experience,” said the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. “They’re not as advanced as athletes from other countries, but they’re still relatively new in the sport.
“But this was just a fantastic result for both of them.”
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