We Hope He Chokes

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One of 8,000 copies of McNeely's book that found its way to the U.S.

Jimmy Pedro remembers vividly the first time he found himself second in a judo match, which is to say, the loser. "I didn't know how to deal with a loss; it was like someone shot me. I remember lying on the mat until my father came out and picked me off the floor." He was 11, but he had won a national junior-judo title every year since age six.

Pedro never did get used to losing. He has been the top-ranked American judoka for the past decade, winning national titles five times. And last October he expanded his territory by claiming the world championship in the 73-kg (161-lb.) category. He is the U.S.'s best chance for a gold medal in Sydney, in a sport in which an American has never claimed the top prize.

That's not at all surprising. Although judo has been part of the Olympics since 1964--nearly 200 countries participate worldwide--in the U.S. it often gets lost in the mishmash of martial-arts schools that teach everything from karate to karaoke. Pedro, 29, the son of a judo instructor, lives in Lawrence, Mass., and competes for the New York Athletic Club, but spends much of his time training in Europe and Japan. "The competition is there," he says. "In France they have 600,000 players actively competing. In the States we have maybe 15,000."

The goal in judo is similar to that in wrestling: outpoint your opponent by outmaneuvering him, or flatten him on the mat for a pin, or ippon. There are a couple of neat options too, such as squeezing the other guy's neck in a choke hold or an armlock until he says uncle. World Wrestling Federation fans, you'll like this one.

Judo is a sport that requires explosive strength and general overall quickness, as well as a mastery of throws and kicks. Pedro's training is a combination of Olympic weight lifting, such as the clean and jerk, and 400-m sprints for endurance. To claim gold, he will have to win six matches in one day.

In Sydney, Pedro and his teammates (including potential medalists Jason Morris, a 1992 silver winner at 81 kg [178 lbs.], Brian Olson at 90 kg [198 lbs.] and Hillary Wolf in the women's 52 kg [115 lbs.]) will be dealing with two distinct judo styles. The traditional Asian approach emphasizes speed and balance in order to knock the other judoka over. "With the Japanese and the Koreans there'll be a lot of space. It's a free-flowing, let's-see-who-can-throw-the-other-guy type of thing," says Pedro.

But in recent years, Russian and European teams have ushered in another style that's definitely less stylish: reach out and crush someone. Why mess around with technique when you can grab a guy and hurl him to the floor? "The Europeans tend to be physically strong, pulling you in and crunching you. Grabbing your belt in weird places," Pedro explains.

O.K., Jimmy, let's not get into that. But Pedro can fight either style. He's one of the strongest judoka going, and his technique is unique: he was an outstanding collegiate wrestler at Brown, and he's a lefty. He may have to call on both speed and strength. Pedro's biggest competition will come from Russia's crunching Vitali Makarov, while the Japanese will present the defending Olympic champion, Kenzo Nakamura.

It's a tough challenge, and Pedro knows that "you have to be a little lucky" to find yourself on your feet at the end of the day. But having learned about losing the hard way, he's likely to opt for the alternative.