Melissa Myers was a fourth-grader at Yorkville Intermediate School when she was assigned a presentation about what she wanted her career to be.
The President? A doctor?
Myers had other plans in mind.
“I did a presentation on how I want to compete in the Olympics,” said Myers, now 25 years old. “I’ve always known that I wanted to pursue it professionally as best as I could.”
“It” is the sport of judo, which means “gentle way” in Japanese – although there is nothing particularly gentle about a sport in which athletes try to throw one another to the ground. Derived from the ancient techniques of jiu-jitsu, judo is the second-most practiced sport worldwide behind soccer, according to judoinfo.com.
Judo, which debuted in the Olympics in 1964 on the men’s side with the women following as an official Olympic sport in 1992, is one of only two Asian martial arts sports (taekwondo the other) that’s an Olympic sport.
And while Myers isn’t in Tokyo this month, she aspires for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. That, after starting training with four-time Olympian, 1992 silver medalist and 2008 Olympic coach Jason Morris at his judo center in Glenville, N.Y. four hours north of New York City.
Myers, a home health aid currently in massage therapy school, now trains with Morris six days a week, and supplements that with work with a personal trainer.
“I had it in my mind that maybe I could do [the] 2020 [Olympics], but after moving up to work with Jason I realized that I was nowhere near ready,” Myers said. “It [this year’s Olympics] was a little unrealistic after training and nitpicking bad habits that I’m slowly correcting. 2024 seems a lot more reasonable.”
Myers has already had quite the year competitively, both on the national and international stage.
She took third place at the Punta Cana PanAm Open in the Dominican Republic in April and third place again at the Guayaquil PanAm Open in Ecuador.
In between, Myers earned her first national championship, taking gold at 70 kilograms at the Senior National Championship on May 15 in Reno, Nevada.
The tournament in the Dominican Republic was Myers’ first in over a year; she was in Argentina in March 2020 when the whole country shut down because of COVID-19 and all tournaments were canceled.
Myers, who has competed in 11 countries total since age 13, has trained with Morris in New York near Schenectady for two years.
“He’s been to the Olympics four times and the fifth as a coach,” said Myers, who is ranked 150th on the World Ranking list and No. 2 in the U.S. “You would never assume that Schenectady would be the place to go to train. He [Morris] is the Harvard of judo. This is my home now.”
Myers started in judo when she was four years old, at the Fox Valley Judo Club in Naperville. One of Myers’ cousins started there, and Myers’ mom put her older brothers, twin sister and Melissa in it. At age 16, she earned her black belt.
“I’m the only one in my family that stuck with it and latched on, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Myers said. “It’s part of my identity.”
Indeed, while Myers currently works as a home health aid and hopes to start working full-time as a massage therapist, she does so primarily to fund her judo training and as a career post-competition.
“You don’t see too many people in their mid 30s competing,” Myers said. “I need a career after my body is completely broken.”
Myers has, though, been able to remain relatively injury-free. She broke a toe once, and sprained the MCL in her knee but it healed quickly. She said it’s an unspoken rule in judo to not hurt your partner. While there is a misconception that judo is like karate, the goal in judo is to immobilize your opponent. Punching and kicking is not permitted but competitors can grab, throw, choke, arm-bar or pin an opponent.
“I get lots of bruises – I bruise like a peach – but I know how to work with my body and trust my body,” Myers said. “I rarely get hurt.”
Myers, a self-described adrenalin junkie, said her adrenalin “goes through the roof” during competition. It might sound like an oxymoron, but competing is relieving to her.
Competitions are limited during the summer because of the Olympics, but Myers has submitted her name for fall tournaments in Paris, Croatia, Spain and Azerbaijan.
“When I was little, I was winning a lot, I was pretty good and you want to keep doing something in life that you are good at,” Myers said. “Judo, I learn something new every day. I will aways be a student of judo, especially now that I’m in elite training with Jason. Jason always said it’s like a ladder; you can’t skip five rungs. You might fall down, but you get back up. It’s a long process and I’m willing to do it.”