Olympic Preview Part 3: Women’s -78kg

This is Part 3 of my preview for the 2016 Olympic Judo contests. Instead of previewing every division, I have chosen the three weight classes where USA Judo athletes are highly ranked and expected to compete in the medal rounds: Women’s -57kg (Marti Malloy), Women’s -78kg (Kayla Harrison), and Men’s -81kg (Travis Stevens).

Mental fortitude, emotional wave-riding. Those have been the themes thus far as we enter Day 6 of Judo competition at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

We have seen World #1 ranked players falling every day, and some real surprises such as Beslan Mudranov and Fabio Basile, two Judoka not ranked above World #20, respectively winning Gold in the Men’s -60kg and -66kg divisions, as well as Rafaela Silva putting the country of Brazil on her back to win Women’s -57kg.

USA Judo had one of it’s all-time great moments watching Travis Stevens dominate his matches with superior newaza skills, defeating World #1 ranked Avtandili Tchrikishvili to advance to the Finals before falling to Khasan Khalmurzaev and coming away with the Silver medal, the first time an American Judoka has done so since Jason Morris in 1992.

Not all World #1 players fell, though. Majlinda Kelmendi destroyed Women’s -52kg to become the first athlete representing Kosovo to win a Gold medal at the Olympics. Likewise, Tina Trstenjak took care of business in Women’s -63, showing the world exactly why she is considered by many to be the female Judoka on the planet.

This brings us to Women’s -78kg, where Kayla Harrison has reigned atop the division since becoming the first and only American Judoka to win a Gold medal at the Olympics in London 2012.

Like Kelmendi and Trstenjak, nobody in her division is even remotely close in terms of pedigree or tournament wins against top competition to pose a serious threat on paper.

Fortunately for Harrison’s opposition, tournaments aren’t held on paper, merely scored there, and each will have a chance to shock the world as so many have already in the first five days of Olympic action.

Let’s get the primer out of the way. Here is the current World rankings from 1 to 8, with each woman’s W/L and Winning % against Top 15 ranked competition in parentheses.

Top 8 World Ranked, W/L and W% vs. Top 15 Ranked Opponents Since 2013       

  1. Kayla Harrison, USA (27-9, .750)
  2. Audrey Tcheumeo, FRA (26-16, .619)
  3. Guusje Steenhuis, NED (25-26, .490)*
  4. Mayra Aguiar, BRA (12-9, .571)
  5. Luise Malzahn, GER (23-25, .479)
  6. Marhinde Verkerk, NED (24-16, .600)
  7. Anamari Velensek, SLO (26-15, .634)
  8. Natalie Powell, GBR (17-21, .447)

*Steenhuis was left off the Netherlands Olympic roster for her weight class in favor of Marhinde Verkerk. As per the rules, each country may have only one representative per weight class in Judo.

So let’s break this down by brackets. Harrison is in Pool A along with her first opponent Zhang (#14), Umeki (#9), Purevjargal (#18), and Joo (#10). In Pool B, whose winner Harrison will have to face in order to reach the Gold medal match, there is Verkerk (#6) and Velensek (#7). The bad news: on paper, Harrison has an extremely tough path to the Finals. The good news: on paper, Harrison is undefeated against everyone in Pools A and B since 2013, with the notable exception of Abigel Joo of Hungary, who has beaten her twice after the 2012 Olympics, where Harrison defeated her to advance.

Marhinde Verkerk is the most dangerous, accomplished judoka in this side of the bracket besides Harrison, the only one with a real hope of beating her, and a likely Bronze medalist in the event that Harrison does advance past her to reach the Finals.

Luckily for Harrison, her worst matchups are on the other side of the brackets, that being Brazil’s Mayra Aguiar (#4) and France’s Audrey Tcheumeo (#2). Aguiar seemed to have Harrison’s number the past few years, rattling off three consecutive wins against her from 2014-15 before dropping the next 3 out of 4 matches leading up to Rio, including the last two. Tcheumeo is a fantastic judoka who is 2-2 against Harrison and certainly has a shot to beat her if she reaches the Finals.

This is where, for me, momentum comes in. Brazilian fans have been fired up since the Olympics arrived in their home city, and Brazilian athletes such as Rafaela Silva and Mariana Silva have performed above and beyond expectations with ravenous crowd support behind them.

Aguiar is going to feed off of that and easily advance through Pool D to face the winner of Pool C, which include Tcheumeo as well as other game judoka who could surprise many and make it to the semi-finals.

North Korea’s Kyong Sol (#11), who is 0-2 against Tcheumeo, is nevertheless and excellent player and will face the French woman in Round 2 (they both have first round byes). Disappointment will be guaranteed, as both athletes are expected to make a deep run and at least medal.

Natalie Powell of Great Britain, who supplanted her teammate and 2012 Silver medalist Gemma Gibbons in these games, could possibly find her way to the quarter final against Sol or Tcheumeo, but it is clear she is the weak link among the Top 8 World ranked women at this class. Powell is a staggering 6-26 against the other Top 8 since 2013, won only 25% of her victories by ippon, and actually loses by ippon over 34% of the time when she is defeated, an incredibly dismal stat line. Powell performs admirably against women in the 12-30 range, but once she is among the Top 10 or higher, she becomes little more than cannon fodder.

If I had to predict one athlete to meet Harrison in the Finals, it would be Aguiar over Tcheumeo. Cleary she has been Harrison’s toughest match to date, and she will probably respond well to the medal-hungry crowd with top notch performances. Team France, on the other hand, has performed poorly in these games thus far, and that might have created a sense of gloom around French athletes including Tcheumeo, who might be feeling the pressure to reverse her team’s fortunes.

I do foresee Tcheumeo and Verker picking up bronze medals in the Repechage bracket, with Harrison meeting Aguiar in an intense Finals match.

Even with the crowd against her, Harrison has off-the-charts mental fortitude, plus the momentum gained from watching training partner and friend Travis Stevens accomplish his dreams and winning the Silver medal in heroic fashion. Her grips and newaza, like Travis, will be too much for Aguiar to handle. Harrison is also physically stronger than most of the girls in her division, with great athleticism and determination to go along with it.

From everyone here at Earthbound Freestyle Judo, we wish Kayla Harrison luck as she continues her quest to be the first American judoka to not only win one Gold medal at the Olympics, but to repeat and win a second Gold.

Below are two of Harrison’s recent matches against World #2 Tcheumeo and World #4 Aguiar.

Kayla Harrison vs. Audrey Tcheumeo, Grand Prix Tbilisi 2015, Finals

Kayla Harrison vs. Mayra Aguiar, Masters 2016, Finals

All stats provided by Judobase.org.



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