World Team Members, First-time Champions Win Gold at Senior Nationals
by Nicole Jomantas
(Spokane, WA) – Fifteen athletes were crowned Senior National Champions in Spokane on Saturday with first-time Champions joining multi-time gold medalists at The Podium at STCU.
Less than two weeks after competing at the Senior World Championships, Maria Laborde (Kenosha, WI / NYAC / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) won her second USA Judo Senior National title after earning five National Championship golds during her career in her native Cuba.
The two-time Senior World medalist won four straight matches by ippon (instant win) to successfully defend her 2022 gold in the 48 kg division, winning her last match in the round robin competition against 2022 Senior World Team member Giovanna Prado (Coral Springs, FL) – her Ki-Itsu-Sai teammate who Laborde also defeated in the 2022 Senior Nationals finals.
“I feel very happy today because all the girls are training very hard to get medals and everybody’s ready, said Laborde who left Spokane on Saturday night to travel to Linz, Austria to compete in the Upper Austria Grand Prix on Thursday. “I just won four matches all by ippon so that means I’m in good shape and ready for my next competition in Austria.”
Although Senior Nationals comes in the midst of Olympic qualifying tournaments, Laborde said the event was good preparation for the World Tour.
“This tournament helped me to get ready to get better for the next tournament. Sometimes I struggle with the training because I don’t have so many places to train,” she said. “And this tournament helped me to get a couple matches so I can see where I am for my next competition in Austria. I expect do my best and get my medal.”
Ranked 15th in the Olympic rankings, Laborde is one of Team USA’s top candidates for a position on the 2024 Olympic Team. Paris would mark the first Games for Laborde who won bronze at the 2014 Senior World Championships and was in contention for the 2016 Games, but gave up her opportunity to compete on the world’s largest stage in order to move to the United States.
“I was No. 3 in the rankings at that time. I was in a pretty good place and now I’m in the process of getting to the Olympic Games for the American team,” said Laborde who last competed internationally in 2014 and returned to her first event for Team USA in March of 2022. “When I was competing for Cuba, they give me some stuff and I made decent money, but I wasn’t happy there. I see how my family struggled so I wanted to be able to help my family and one of the main ways to do that is to come to America. We have freedom. I can travel. It’s amazing. I have a great team and a great coach. I’m really happy to have everything I have right now.”
Laborde is one of several athletes who will be following Senior Nationals with the Upper Austria Grand Prix, including 2021 Senior World Team member Nate Keeve (San Rafael, CA / NYAC) who earned his third Senior National title after winning gold in 2018 and 2019 and silver in 2017 and 2022.
The top seed in the tournament, Keeve drew a bye into the quarter-finals and won his next two matches to set up a final against Kedge Zawack (Denver, CO / Denver Judo) – a five-time Senior Nationals medalist who Keeve has fought at multiple Senior National Championships. In addition to fighting for the 100 kg title, Zawack also earned silver in the open competition where he lost by ippon to 2022 Senior National Open Champion Avtandili Bogveradze (Brooklyn, NY / Denver Judo) during the morning session.
“I’ve probably fought Kedge as many times as I’ve fought anybody in my senior career,” Keeve said. “When it comes to him, I always try to put past results to the side, focus on the match coming up, respect my opponent and don’t overlook anybody. And so I was equal parts excited and nervous – right at that perfect level where you want to be going into any match, especially a final.”
The match would be scoreless until late in the third minute when Keeve took Zawack to the ground. Zawack tapped out of a sankaku (triangle hold), but the referee had already called halt and the ippon was reversed. In the final minute, Keeve would throw Zawack for the waza-ari (half-point) he would need to win the match.
“It feels nice to win. It feels nice to walk away with a result. It’s not the way that I wanted to win, I would say. But walking away with a win is better than walking away with something else,” Keeve said. “I would love to have won in more spectacular fashion, but I’ll take what I can get and it’s always good to be National Champion.”
After Senior Nationals, Keeve will return to the World Tour in Austria, competing in Europe for the first time since February.
“Because of the Olympic cycle right now, to some people that may change the way they look at things. To me, personally, I’m just always trying to do as well as I can at every competition I show up to and the results will take care of themselves I like to think,” Keeve said. “I like to compete. So if I can compete as much as I can, that’s what I’m going to do and I’m not really taking into consideration who’s going to be there, who’s not going to be there. The geographic location doesn’t really matter. If I show up, I expect to do as well as I can and that’s all I’m hoping for.”
Senior World Team Members Return to the Podium
In addition to Laborde, six members of the team that competed at the Senior World Championships in Doha earlier this month returned to action in Spokane with five winning gold.
Dominic Rodriguez (Lehigh Acres, FL / NYAC / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center), came into Spokane with an opening on his resume for his first Senior National title at 19 years old. Rodriguez, the reigning Senior Pan American Champion, won his first three matches each by ippon in the 73 kg category and ended his day with a fourth when he threw Isaac Carmichael (Wakefield, MA / Pedro’s Judo Center) for ippon in the first minute of the gold medal final.
At 66 kg, Ari Berliner (Schenectady, NY / NYAC / Jason Morris Judo Center) entered the tournament as the two-time reigning Senior National Champion and a bronze medalist at the 2022 Senior Pan Ams. After a bye and three wins in his early rounds, Berliner advanced to the finals against Lenny Sheynfeld (Staten Island, NY / Pedro’s Judo Center) – a 2021 Senior National Champion at 60 kg who won bronze at the Youth Nationals in March at 66 kg. Berliner threw Sheynfeld for a waza-ari in the second minute and went on to hold Sheynfeld scoreless for the remainder of the match.
Both of Team USA’s 81 kg athletes at the Senior Worlds competed in Spokane, but each fell to rising star Johan Silot Suse (Salem, MA / Pedro’s Judo Center) – the 2023 Youth National Champion who hails from Cuba and earned his U.S. citizenship last year. Sluse first upset two-time Senior World Team member and 2021 Senior National Champion Nick Yonezuka (West Long Branch, NJ / NYAC / Cranford Judo & Karate Center) in the semifinals. Sluse went on to throw two-time Senior World Team member and two-time Senior National Champion Kell Berliner (Schenectady, NY / Jason Morris Judo Center) for ippon in the finals.
Two-time Senior World Team member Nicole Stout (Schenectady, NY / Jason Morris Judo Center) won her third straight USA Judo Senior National Championship title in the 78 kg division. Stout dominated the round robin tournament, winning all four of her matches by ippon, including two victories in less than a minute each.
Mackenzie Williams (El Lago, Texas / Westlake Judo Club) won her third career senior National title in the +78 kg division in a best-of-three series against Anna Atkinson (Tacoma, WA / Ippon Judo). After winning their opener by ippon, Williams was pinned by Atkinson in the second match, but came back to clinch gold with a final win over Atkinson.
Past Champions Return for Gold
At just 21 years old, two-time Senior World Team member Alexander Knauf (Yorkville, IL / NYAC / Cohen Brothers Judo) won his third straight Senior National Championship title in the 90 kg division. Knauf earned a bye into the second round and won his next two matches by ippon to advance to the finals where he threw Davit Aghasaryan (Sunland, CA / LA Tenri) for his third ippon of the day to win gold.
Four-time Continental Open medalist Melissa Myers (Burnt Hills, NY / Jason Morris Judo Center) returned to the top of the 70 kg podium after winning gold in 2021. Myers took three round robin wins by ippon, including throwing 2022 Senior National Champion Yasmin Alamin (Woodbridge, VA / Sport Judo) in the second round.
The 2021 Senior National Champion in the +100 kg division, Philip Horiuchi (West Covina, CA / LA Tenri) found himself trailing Malki El Mehdi (Norfwalk, CT / El Idrissi Judo Academy) by two penalties to one in the third minute. El Mehdi, a 2012 Olympian for Morocco, upset 2022 Senior Pan American Championships bronze medalist Christian Konoval (Richardson, TX / NYAC / Colton Brown Training Center) in the opening round of his first U.S. Senior National Championships with Konoval going on to win bronze. After his win over the top seed, El Mehdi was favored to take gold, but Horiuchi had other plans, throwing El Mehdi for ippon to earn his second Senior National title.
Next Generation on the Rise
Including Rodriguez at 73 kg, five athletes were crowned first-time Senior National Champions in Spokane.
Twenty-year-old Noran Elmahroukey (New Providence, NJ / NYAC / Colton Brown Training Center) made her first Senior National medal a gold in the 57 kg division. The 2018 Cadet World Team member medaled in her second straight event after taking silver at the Kuwait City Asian Open earlier this month. Elmahroukey earned a bye into the semifinals where she threw Elizabeth Cesta (Woodbury, MN / Docs Gym) for a quick ippon. In the finals, Elmahroukey defeated Liana Morello (Wakefield, MA / Pedro’s Judo Center) by penalties to win gold.
A 2022 Junior World Team member, Karlee Carrouth (Oklahoma City, OK / NYAC / USA Stars) was one of three junior athletes to win gold at Senior Nationals. Carrouth needed just 29 seconds to win her first two matches by ippon. In the finals, Carrouth pinned Regina Arias (Elizabeth, NJ / Tech Judo) for 11 seconds to score a waza-ari. Arias escaped Carrouth’s control, but Carrouth locked the pin in again to win by ippon.
Brothers Joshua and Jonathan Yang (Los Angeles, CA / LA Judo Club) faced off in the finals of the 60 kg competition. Sixteen-year-old Jonathan, the reigning Cadet Youth National Champion at 55 kg, won three matches in the early rounds, including a second-round win by penalties in Golden Score over 17-year-old Christopher Velazco (Coral Springs, FL / NYAC / Ki-Itsu-Sai National Training Center) – the 2022 Senior National Champion who went on to win bronze. Nineteen-year-old Joshua, the reigning IJF-Junior Youth National Champion at 60kg earned a bye into the second round and took two victories by ippon to advance to the final where he defeated his younger brother on penalties in Golden Score to win his first Senior National title after taking bronze in 2022.
A bronze medalist at the 2022 Senior Nationals, Jenna Schurr (Torrance, CA) won four straight round robin matches in the 52 kg division to take gold, defeating all of her opponents by ippon, including three wins in less than a minute each.
Visually Impaired Athletes Win Gold
Paralympic hopefuls also fought for National titles in Spokane, competing for gold in the visually impaired events.
Gabriel Carvalho-Iacovino (Norristown, PA / El Idrissi Academy) earned back-to-back wins by ippon in two matches against Ricky Kim (Fresno, CA / Fresno Judo) in the J1 men’s +90 kg category to win his first National title.
Two exhibition events also were held in the visually impaired categories.
Riley Schmitz (Richfield, MN) was uncontested in the J2 73 kg category, but won two matches by ippon against J1 73 kg player Mansur Ferrell (Seattle, WA / Seattle Dojo) in their exhibition events.
A gold medalist in the able-bodied novice 81 kg category, Brando Collins (Hickory Hills, IL / Denver Judo) was uncontested at J1 90 kg and agreed to fight Kim in an exhibition series, defeating the heavyweight by ippon in two straight matches.