By Jessica Snouwaert
Linkin Park blared through his headphones as he paced the gym floor. His hands, clammy with sweat, fiddled with the black belt wrapped tight across his waist. He took a deep breath, his white cotton uniform hanging loosely on his slender frame. This was Brandon Kelly’s ritual before every judo match, but this wasn’t any judo match. This was his chance to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics. This was the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Beyond his headphones, the training center swelled with the sounds of competitors grappling. Kelly tried to block out everything around him. He needed to be clear-headed when it was his turn to step on the mat, ready 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 stepped onto the thick foam mat, face-to-face with his opponent: a young 20-year-old man slightly taller but not much heavier than himself. As they walked toward each other and bowed, a thought flickered in Kelly’s head: Would his elbow last the match?
‘Decisive for once’
Kelly, 22, started studying martial arts as an 8-year-old. By 14, he earned his first black belt. By the time he was 17, he had earned two more. What began as a way to stand up to his older brother became a dedication to a sport of physical self-expression and mental discipline.
“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.”
Kelly started out by taking weekly karate classes in his hometown of Pittsboro, N.C., and quickly realized that he not only enjoyed martial arts but was particularly apt for it. His low center of gravity gave him an upper hand in sparring matches; he could think on his feet. But most importantly, he practiced and his instructors noticed.
“Brandon, without even having to tell him, ‘Hey, you need to practice,’ would go off and do it on his own,” his former instructor, Chuck Longenecker, said. “And he would come back every week hungry for another lesson and willing to show what he’s been working on.”
Before long, Kelly was earning trophies, medals and plaques in competitions across North Carolina. His older remembers him coming home from matches with as many as six trophies at a time to add to his room, one already full of past awards. As he improved, Kelly evolved from student to teacher, helping other classmates and teaching classes of his own.
Kelly expanded his martial arts repertoire from karate to other forms, including taekwondo, Jeet Kune Do, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But among the many forms of martial arts, Kelly gravitated towards judo. He wanted to study it and become a judoka, a term for someone with expertise in the sport. The style came naturally to him because judo is what he calls “smart man’s wrestling,” a physical game of chess, with opponents trying to pin each other to score a single winning point. For Kelly, the movements, balance and pace of judo felt right.
“I love that whenever we were in the thick of it, there was almost a cohesion – even within the friction, the pushes and pulls of trying to get an upper hand,” Kelly said. “There is a cohesion that flowed so much like water.”
Traditional sports never interested Kelly until he reached high school and he started using judo for high school wrestling. The hours of judo practice, in which he learned how to sweep an opponent on their back with one decisive movement, proved advantageous in wrestling. By his sophomore year, Kelly was as much of an avid wrestler as he was a martial artist, with daily practices at the high school and weekly competitions around the county.
During that season, Kelly found himself in a daunting wrestling match. Trapped face-down beneath his opponent, he fought to sit up. Kelly tried to swing his weight and escape the hold, but his opponent anticipated the movement with a forceful block, dislocating Kelly’s elbow. He continued to struggle against the opponent thanks to an adrenaline high that dulled the pain. Kelly managed to break free, unaware of his damaged elbow. He won the match but missed the rest of the season.
The injury cut Kelly off from wrestling and sparring. During the recovery his motivation to fight dwindled. Without weekly practices and competitions, he decided to invest his time into a different passion: Boy Scouts of America. Kelly, now the organization’s international mobilization and emergency management specialist, was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout after his injury. One day while working on his Eagle Scout project, he heard his home phone ring and answered.
“Hello … this is he …uh huh. Well, I’m not sure that I’ll be at that competition,” Kelly said. “I’m currently recovering from a dislocated elbow …who’s we?”
The U.S. Olympic Committee was calling, and they wanted to see Kelly compete in an upcoming judo competition. Giddy with disbelief, Kelly knew what to do – he had to keep fighting. Even if he couldn’t make it to the upcoming match, Kelly knew he had to recover, train and compete.
But years passed with silence from the USOC, and Kelly was beginning the second semester of his first year at UNC-Chapel Hill. But that spring he received another call from the USOC. This time there was an invitation to attend trials for judo at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. Wanting to seize what might be his only opportunity to compete in the Summer Olympics, Kelly boarded a plane to Colorado Springs that summer.
Overcoming a ‘mental roadblock’
One minute and 15 seconds is all it took. One minute and 15 seconds into his first match of the trials, Kelly’s elbow became dislocated for a second time. Unlike the last time this happened, Kelly did not win the match. He bowed to his opponent, the loose cotton uniform he wore concealing his disfigured elbow. He headed toward the bathroom, holding back tears of disappointment and pain.
Alone, he screamed and cursed as he popped his joint back into place. This was his chance to go to the Summer Olympics – and it was gone. Kelly rode the plane home in silence.
The next year was spent avoiding the gym or talking about martial arts. Kelly stopped competing and wouldn’t 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 his last competition.
While traveling abroad in Israel during the spring of 2018, Kelly went out to visit the local bars in Jerusalem. He was enjoying a night out with friends when 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 Kelly. Kelly deflected the blow as four other men jumped toward him in a drunken rage. The next few seconds were a blur as Kelly subdued the five men.
Afterwards, his friends rushed over to him with a flurry of questions. How did he know how to fight? The answer was clear to Kelly.
He was a judoka.
Edited by Brennan Doherty