Linkin Park blared through his headphones as he paced the gym floor. His hands, clammy with sweat, fiddled with the black belt. He took a deep breath. This was Brandon Kelly’s ritual before every match, but this wasn’t any Judo match.
This was the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials.
Kelly tried to block out the swell of noises around him. He needed a clear head when he took the mat to outwit his opponent. One point is all he needed to win his first match of the trial.
When it was time for Kelly’s match, he came face-to-face with his opponent: a young, 20-year-old man, slightly taller but not much heavier than him. As they walked toward each other and bowed, a thought flickered in Kelly’s head: would his elbow last the match?
Kelly, 22, started studying martial arts when he was 8 years old. At 14, he earned his first black belt. By the time he was 17, he had earned two more.
The UNC senior began weekly karate classes in his hometown of Pittsboro, North Carolina, and quickly realized he not only enjoyed martial arts, but he had a particular aptitude for it. What began as a way to stand up to an older brother became a dedication to a sport of physical self-expression and mental discipline.
Before long, Kelly was earning trophies, medals and plaques in competitions across North Carolina. His brother, Brady Kelly, remembers him coming home from matches with as many as six trophies at a time. Kelly began to evolve from student to teacher, helping other classmates and teaching classes of his own.
As he expanded his martial arts repertoire, he gravitated most toward Judo. He wanted to become an expert or a judoka. The style — what Kelly calls “smart man’s wrestling” — is a physical game of chess, as opponents try to pin each other to score a single winning point. For Kelly, the movements, balance and pace of Judo felt right.
“I'm a very indecisive person, but it seemed that whenever it came to competing and being on the mats with other judokas, I was very decisive,” Kelly said. “It was a split-second decision you had to make. I love that ability to be decisive for once.”
Mainstream sports were never Kelly’s interest until he reached high school and started using Judo as a member of the school's wrestling team. By sophomore year, Kelly became as much of an avid wrestler as he was a martial artist.
During his second year wrestling, Kelly found himself in a heated match. He won the first round against his opponent and was confident for the second.
The shrill ring of a whistle sounded, and Kelly took the bottom position on the mat as his opponent approached from behind. His mind raced, envisioning the motions he needed to execute to win the match.
Kelly swung his weight with a forceful turn of his hips as his opponent grabbed him, but the rival anticipated the movement and chopped against Kelly’s arm, dislocating his elbow. Adrenaline dulled the pain.
They continued to struggle against each other, but Kelly managed to complete the vision in his head. He flipped his opponent and pinned him to the ground.
A whistle blew. He won the match, but had to sit out the rest of the season.
Kelly’s injury cut him off not only from wrestling, but martial arts, too. He grew increasingly discouraged without his weekly practices and competitions and decided to invest his time in a different passion — the Boy Scouts of America.
He was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout during his recovery. In 2012, while working on his Eagle Scout project, he heard his home phone ring and answered what he thought could only be a prank call.
The U.S. Olympic Committee wanted to know if he would compete in an upcoming Judo competition, but Kelly said he was still recovering from his injury and could not compete. He hung up the phone giddy with disbelief and a tinge of skepticism.
He received another call soon after. It was the committee again, asking when he would compete next. Realizing the calls were sincere, he knew he had to keep fighting. He needed to recover, train and compete. And so he did.
“He's always been the type of person that says, ‘Hey, give me lemons, I'm going to make lemonade, and if you piss in my lemonade, well you know what, I'll distill it, and I'll remove the piss and I'll still have lemonade,” his former instructor, Chuck Longenecker said.
But years passed with silence from the Olympic Committee. Kelly started to doubt the prospects of an Olympic future.
It was his first year of college when he received another call from the U.S. Olympic Committee. This time, it was an invitation to attend trials for Judo at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Wanting to seize what might be his only opportunity to compete in the Olympics, Kelly boarded a plane to Colorado in summer 2015.
Game, Set, Match
Kelly raised his head from the bow, ready to battle his opponent. He reached for his opponent’s elbow and tried use momentum from his hips to throw his opponent to the ground, but his hand slipped, and he tried to force the motion anyway.
It was too late.
He had lost control. His opponent’s momentum lunged forward, throwing Kelly to the ground on his outstretched arm. Kelly’s mind whirled in pain.
He tried to regain focus as they stood up to go after each other again, but concern for his elbow flooded his thoughts. He made another miscalculation and landed on his elbow, dislocating it fully. His opponent won.
Kelly stood and bowed one last time. The loose cotton uniform concealed his disfigured elbow.
He started toward the bathroom holding back tears of disappointment and pain. Alone in the bathroom he screamed and cursed as he popped his bone back into place.
Kelly rode the plane home in silence.
He spent the next year avoiding the gym or talking about martial arts. Kelly stopped competing and would not even watch movies of his martial arts idol, Bruce Lee.
“I just had this mental roadblock,” Kelly said. “I had no energy, I had no motivation – like, now what? I felt a lot like the donkey with a carrot strapped in front of it. You’re pursuing, but you’ll never catch it.”
The role of Judo waned in Kelly’s life, but other passions developed. He took on a prominent leadership role in the Boy Scouts, organizing national events and statewide projects. While his involvement with the Boy Scouts flourished, he still felt estranged from Judo. It took a trip halfway around the world to jolt Kelly from the painful memories of the trial.
While on a trip in Israel, Kelly went out to see the nightlife in Jerusalem.
It was the Jewish holiday of Purim and the streets were filled with people and music. Kelly and his friend sat outside on a bar patio of the Jerusalem street market. Kelly was enjoying the night until he saw a man forcibly kissing his friend.
Kelly leaped to his feet and grabbed the man, telling him to leave his friend alone. The man turned and swung at him. Kelly reacted with a sudden reflex, deflecting the blow.
Four other men jumped toward him in a drunken rage. The next few seconds were a blur as Kelly subdued the five men in the street. His friends rushed over to him in a flurry of concern and confusion — how did he know how to fight?
The answer was clear to him.
He was a judoka.
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