When it comes to high-level national-calibre competition, Moose Jaw Koseikan Judo Club members Kailey Large, Stephanie Legault and Brian Smith have all been there, done that.
Large and Legault both have experience at the Canada and Saskatchewan Games while Smith took to the mats in his first junior national championship last year.
Mark Kerr, on the other hand, is a different story.
When the 74-plus kilogram juvenile men’s division competitor joins Legault, Large and Smith at the national junior/juvenile championships in Kamloops this weekend, it’ll mark his first experience fighting at that level of competition.
And as one would expect, it’s a step that isn’t coming without it’s share of anxiety.
“I’m as nervous as hell,” he said with a smile during a break from a recent training session. “From what I’ve heard it’s going to be a lot like Toronto (home of the Ontario Open, which Kerr and Smith fought in earlier this year) so I’m just going to hope to do my best and hope that’ll be enough to win a medal.”
If Kerr does have one advantage over his opponents, it’s that he’s heading into the event at the top of the category’s age scale. At 16, he’ll be one of oldest fighters in his bracket.
“There will be lots of people there with experience, though, I can’t say I’m more experienced than anyone else because there will be guys there who have been to nationals before,” he said. “It’ll probably be a lot different from what I’ve seen and it could be a lot tougher, too.”
It’s much the same situation with Legault, who will fight in the under-67 kilogram juvenile womens division as a 15-year-old and as such will also be at the top of the division.
Unlike Kerr, though, she has fought at an ultra-elite level, including an appearance with Team Saskatchewan at the 1999 Canada Games. Legault hopes that experience will translate into a top performance in her first national tournament appearance.
“I’m expecting to do good, maybe even top five or top seven,” she said. “I think I might even have a chance at a medal and that would be great.”
The key to that kind of a performance would be to stick to what’s worked so far, specifically the techniques she excels at.
“That’s what we’ve been working on lately, four or five throws that we do really well,” Legault explained. “It makes it a lot easier when you just have a few that you know you can do.”
Of all the local national contenders, Large finds herself in one of the toughest positions — as a first-year 16-year-old junior competing in the under-57 kilogram division against fighters as old as 19, the opposition will likely be as formidable as anything she’s faced in the past.
“For me, I think it’s going to be hard, especially because it’s my first year in junior,” Large said. “I’ll probably be one of the youngest ones there, and that means this will probably be more of a learning experience this time.”
Which often makes for slightly lower competitive goals — even though Large has medal aspirations like any other national competitor, she’s willing to take a few smaller steps along the way.
“I’m hoping I’ll just be able to last the whole four minutes (time limit) for at least one fight, or maybe even get a win,” she said. “That would be a good way to start and maybe I’ll be able to do better next year.”
For Smith, the 2001 edition of junior nationals marks what he hopes will be the next step in his judo career. As the only member of the group with true national experience — he posted a 1-2 record in his under-90 kilogram division at the tournament last season — Smith also finds himself with elevated expectations.
“Last year when I went, I was way too nervous because I’d never been there and didn’t know what to expect,” said the 17-year-old four-year veteran of the sport. “Now I know what it’s all about and how good the competition is, and I hope that’s going to make a difference.”
Smith also has a better idea of what kind of competition he’ll face. He did battle with two of the top national-level fighters in his division at the Ontario Open and held his own in both matches.
Building that kind of confidence, he said, can be half the battle.
“I held my own, I just made a couple mistakes and got caught,” Smith explained. “The thing is now I know I can compete at this level and if I fight well I might be able to do something.”
The Koseikan troop leaves Thursday for nationals with competition running Saturday and Sunday.
From the mat . . . the local competitors will have a familiar face in their corner throughout the tournament, as Koseikan head instructor and Judo Saskatchewan president Cliff Wiens will also be making the trip.
Appeared in the Moose Jaw Times-Herald April 18, 2001