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At 36, Union College grad Cutro-Kelly finally realizes Olympic judo dream

Yuliana Bolivar of Peru, right, fights for the bronze medal against Nina Cutro-Kelly of the United States in the women's +78kg judo match at the Pan American Games in Lima Peru, Sunday, Aug.11, 2019. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Yuliana Bolivar of Peru, right, fights for the bronze medal against Nina Cutro-Kelly of the United States in the women's +78kg judo match at the Pan American Games in Lima Peru, Sunday, Aug.11, 2019. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Nina Cutro-Kelly was “99%” certain her dream of an Olympic judo berth was done.

After her performance at the World Judo Championships last month in Budapest, Hungary left the 36-year-old Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School and Union College graduate on the outside looking in at the women’s over 78-kilogram weight class for the Tokyo Olympics, Cutro-Kelly was realistic about it.

While, “in the back of my mind, I always knew there was a chance,” Cutro-Kelly made plans to get back to her everyday life.

She picked up extra work at her full-time job — fluent in French, she works for a French company as an over-the-phone English instructor for corporate employees — and got back into “non-competing shape” as she dropped 15 pounds from her usual competition weight of 220 pounds by swapping weightlifting work for running.

Cutro also underwent a platelet-rich plasma treatment to help alleviate an ailing elbow.

“Less than two days later,” Cutro-Kelly said in a recent interview with The Daily Gazette, “I got the call I made the team.”

That call came July 2, when Cutro-Kelly found out one of the athletes who’d qualified ahead of her had pulled out of the Tokyo Games after having a baby, bumping Cutro-Kelly into the Olympic field.

Five months from her 37th birthday, she’s the oldest athlete ever to represent the U.S. in judo at the Olympics. The dominant women’s heavyweight in American judo for more than a decade, Cutro-Kelly had come close to qualifying for every Summer Olympics since 2004, missing out due to a variety of circumstances over the years.

After all that waiting, all those close-but-no-cigar attempts over the previous 17 years, after already thinking her Tokyo dreams were dashed, what was the first thing that went through Cutro-Kelly’s head?

“The first thing I said,” she said, “was, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to get out of work.’”

With a level-headed, patient approach born from nearly three decades in a sport built on using an opponent’s momentum against them, Cutro-Kelly went straight into planning mode. Describing herself as someone who doesn’t get “crazy excited,” Cutro-Kelly immediately switched gears into getting herself ready for the Olympics just three weeks ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony.

“I don’t think I got that crazy excitement that a lot of people get of ‘Oh my god, oh my god, I made it,’” she said. “I just went into problem solving mode. I’ve got to get out of work, I’ve got to order a brace so I can get back on the mat and train while my arm is recovering, I need to line up training partners.”

Thankfully, Cutro-Kelly’s employer gave her time off work to prepare, and she was able to jump immediately into training mode. In fact, for someone who has had a full-time job throughout her adult life while also competing at the top level of judo, Cutro-Kelly — who lives and trains in San Antonio — suddenly found herself with more time than ever to dedicate to judo.

“If I could train as my job — if I could have trained as my job for the past 20 years — I think I would’ve had a very different career,” she said. “The reality is I’ve always had a full-time job and a side hustle, and then I’ve done judo and cross-trained. I’ve stayed very busy. . . . It’s just been really nice to finally live the athlete dream in order to get myself as ready as I possibly can be for Tokyo.”

Cutro-Kelly’s trip to Tokyo gives tiny Union College a pair of alumni on Team USA in Tokyo. While 2006 graduate Cutro-Kelly competes in judo, 2019 graduate Emma White is a favorite to win gold in the women’s cycling team pursuit event.

“I graduated 15 years ago, so I’m an old lady, and then I looked up [White] and she only graduated a few years ago,” Cutro-Kelly said. “That’s pretty cool.”

Less than three weeks after getting the call that she qualified, Cutro-Kelly’s Tokyo odyssey was set to begin Tuesday with a flight to Japan, immediately followed by a 24-hour quarantine in accordance with protocols due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Then, a move into Team USA’s Tokyo training center to prepare for her tournament, which is slated for July 30 on the final day of individual judo competition.

Before that comes the chance to walk alongside her fellow athletes at the opening ceremony. The Albany native has been on a big stage before — numerous appearances at world championships and multiple Pan American Championships medals — and she’s not the type to be starstruck, having instructed judo to numerous NBA players while in San Antonio, but that might just be when the reality that she’s an Olympian finally sinks in.

“I think, she said, “it’ll finally hit me.”

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