NEW BRITAIN - Checks, throws and pins were followed by a handshake between Baylee Gagnier and Destiny Mateo, and then the teenage girls left the mat, chins raised.
The 13-year-old Mateo caught her breath and smiled at her family, watching proudly from the sidelines in the New Britain High School gymnasium Sunday, where the Nutmeg State Games judo tournament took place.
The soft-spoken teenager’s polite manner may come as a surprise to some who see her in action. Although she’s all business in competition, Destiny is graceful and well-spoken in daily life. This is, in part, due to her participation in the combat sport, according to her mother, Denise.
“It gives her discipline,” the New Britain resident said Sunday. “It shows in and outside of the competition. She’s very well-mannered, a real sweetheart. And she gets all straight A’s in school.”
Destiny has been doing judo for the last six years, once even traveling to Argentina with the U.S. team. To her, it’s both a hobby and a lifestyle.
“It’s like a big family; there’s so much support,” she said.
Athletes in over 50 divisions took part in this weekend’s tournament. Competitors were matched by age, weight and rank. At 5 years old, the youngest were just learning judo’s traditional values of respect and honor. The oldest was in his 40s.
There was representation from dojos (judo schools) all over Connecticut as well as New York and Rhode Island, which do not offer their own state tournaments. Winners took home medals and eligibility for the National Judo Championship in Colorado.
New Britain resident Bryan Lopez started young. Sunday marked his seventh tournament.
“I like fighting a lot of people I don’t know,” Lopez said after a match. “I learn from my mistakes each time.”
Keeping an eye on all three matches happening simultaneously in the gym was Nutmeg State Games Head Physician Dr. Brian Hollander. He and his assistant were charged with tending to knockouts, bleeding and the like.
“Contact and collision sports are pretty much equal risk,” Hollander said. “This is no safer than hockey or football. The Nutmeg State Games take very good care of their athletes.”
There was more tears than blood Sunday, as the youngest competitors tried to control their emotions. Breathing heavily, 9-year-old Maximus Morse came off the mat proudly following a match with Lucas Judd, 8.
“I got first in my division so far,” Maximus said.
His father, Brandon, pointed out that Lucas and his son have wrestled against each other in the past.
“The kids do lots of different martial arts,” he added. “They’re definitely friends off the mat.”
This is common in judo.
“Respect for others is integral for a good dojo,” Tournament Director Pam Hinkle, a judo sensei (teacher) herself, explained. “Our motto is mutual welfare and benefit. As you learn you help others learn and you improve your own understanding. It’s a very positive environment.”
Hinkle heads the Blue Dragon Judo Club in Middletown, where she teaches those fundamental elements.
Although happy with Sunday’s turnout, she’d always like to see more participants.
“What makes me very sad is we have very few women competing in judo right now,” Hinkle said. “That breaks my heart.”
She attributed the lack of female participation to the popularity of jiu-jitsu, another martial art, and the differences between the two sports.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.