Throwdown of the Year: 2019 Judo Finals

By Phang Yeu Yeou (19A01A), Benjamin Liew (20A03A), and Tay Jing Xuan (20S03C)
Photographs courtesy of Raffles Judo and Raffles Photographic Society

The anticipation in the dojo was electric as spectators and competitors alike geared up for the A and B Division bouts of the 2019 Judo National School Games Finals. Throngs of eyes and ears turned themselves onto the mats, as spectators pressed themselves against every free inch of space along the fences to better take in the action, while the judoka restrained themselves to occupying just one side of the mats.

And what a spectacle it was! Raffles Press brings you inside each athlete’s personal journey through the sport, in order to give you the rundown on the thrilling throws and takedowns of this year’s finals.

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Before each judoka stepped onto the mats, some physical (and mental) preparation was in order. By the side of the mats, training partners rehearsed their drills for the last time during warm-ups, entering and re-entering their throws with fanatical determination, yanking their partners’ lapels up and pressuring them down over and over like clockwork. Teammates sought reassurance from one another, and coaches patted their proteges’ backs while issuing well-meaning reminders. Belts were re-tied, spectacles and competitors’ tags were taken off, and the wooden floor reverberated with the impact of judoka bouncing up and down to keep their footwork loose and limber. Most arduous of all was the wait, as competitors never know if the bout before them would finish in six seconds flat or extend into golden score for nine minutes (as some bouts actually did). And then, it was time to face the music—three bows (once before the mats, once before the inner square, and once to your opponent), and the game was on.

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Entering the lion’s cage.

Bronze Medal Bouts

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A DIV GIRLS (LIGHTWEIGHT): CHIA YEE WEI

The action finally commenced, with RI’s first judoka, Yee Wei, stepping up for the bronze medal lightweight bout against her NYJC contemporary. Her aggressive determination to come away with a medal was apparent as she ran through her warm-up routines, but this was tinged with apprehension; the stakes at this stage in the competition were understandably high.

At the referee’s cry of “Hajime!” (begin!), Yee Wei promptly burst out of the starting blocks, grappling with her opponent as they fought to get a grip. Cheers of personal support from teammates all around the dojo rang out amidst the roar of the crowd as they sought to both advise and encourage her: “calm down, Yee Wei!”, “don’t rush”, and “balance!” However, despite her valiant efforts, she was eventually overpowered by her opponent and forced onto her back for 20 seconds, resulting in a win by ippon (a full point) to NYJC. Visibly disappointed, Yee Wei left the mats following a short hug with her opponent. Her efforts, however, did not go unnoticed by supporters and teammates alike; rapturous applause lit up the sports hall all the same.

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Jed (white), preparing to face his match.

A DIV BOYS (EXTRA LIGHTWEIGHT): JED GOH

With the resolution of the bronze medal bouts for the girls, it was time for the boys to duke it out on the mats. Jed, squinting without his spectacles, walked up to face his opponent with a steadfast expression to start off the first bout of the boys’ category. Silence rang out around the halls as the two faced the other down—which of the two would walk away with a bronze medal around their neck?

Starting off with a bounce on his feet and a grip on the opponent’s collar, Jed dodged multiple attempts at sweeping and reaping by CJC’s fighter, pinning him face down on the ground before a “Mate!” (stop!) pulled them apart. They resumed the bout with a calculated search for openings, striking at each other’s sleeves to get a good grip—until Jed was pulled onto his back and over his opponent’s leg to score an ippon for CJC in the thirtieth second. While Jed jogged back to his starting position and hugged the other judoka in a show of sportsmanship, the Raffles crowd stayed silent amidst ecstatic screams by the other team, stunned by the sudden hiza guruma (knee wheel throw). Nevertheless, there was no lack of encouraging shouts and pats on the back as he left the mats.

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Zhang Chen (blue) performing a seoi otoshi (kneeling shoulder drop).

A DIV BOYS (LIGHTWEIGHT): ZHANG CHEN

Next to take up the gauntlet was Zhang Chen, a fresh face amongst the Raffles team but no less competent for it, having DSAed into RI via Judo. He stepped onto the mats, resolve and nervousness intermingled and etched on his face. As the bout began, he strode forward with purpose, aggressively grip-fighting with his HCI opponent, eyes darting wildly as he probed for an opening with deceptively lazy gestures. Despite his best attempts, his opponent was eventually the first to make the most of an opening; an ippon after 30 seconds was enough to clinch that coveted medal for HCI, leaving Zhang Chen sitting dejected on the mat as his opponent celebrated with the HCI supporters. His tenacity and aggression were noticeably appreciated by the crowd, however—win or lose, the Raffles supporters stood behind him nonetheless, with appreciative applause ringing out as he left the mats.

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A DIV BOYS (MIDDLEWEIGHT): XI WENHAN

A close fight up until the very end, Wenhan certainly didn’t make it easy for his opponent, sweeping him off his feet with cleanly executed—albeit unsuccessful points-wise— minor techniques. The roar from the Rafflesian crowd grew more and more deafening with every attempted throw by the ostensibly well-versed Wenhan, with the sentiment “not if, but when” growing stronger with every passing second. But with every attempt to score a point, Wenhan’s HCI opponent defended and dived well as the clock ticked down. Finally, with 10 seconds remaining and against the run of play, his opponent launched a deadly counter-attack that left Wenhan sprawled on his back—the bout was over. A sense of stunned disbelief settled on the crowd. The disappointment on Wenhan’s face was palpable, with that single moment costing him dearly. Credit where credit is due, however—the sheer tenacity he possessed to fight until the very end was commendable in itself.

Gold Medal Bouts

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A DIV GIRLS (FEATHERLIGHT): VALERIE LU

The first of the A Division Gold medal bouts, Valerie’s bout was to prove prophetic for the rest of the bouts to come. A pensive look followed Valerie onto the mats, though her condition was soon to worsen. Having suffered an injury to her wrist in the trainings leading up to finals, she nevertheless hiked up her sleeves and got down to business regardless. Valerie began the match by sticking it close to her HCI opponent, engaging in close-quarters grip-fighting without abating multiple times. Her morote seoinage earned her a waza-ari (a half point), though it wasn’t enough to secure her the win. Other throws were committed to, but overturned by her opponent due to Valerie herself overturning into the throw.

At last, disaster struck: A blow to her leg caused Valerie’s injury to be aggravated, and first-aid had to be called to the scene. The atmosphere took on a more sombre note, as concern for her safety temporarily overshadowed her teammates’ desire to see her bring home a medal. In spite of the pain, Valerie drew upon her reserves of strength to see the bout through to the end, and eventually triumphed with an ippon-winning throw with 24 seconds to go. Despite having to hobble awkwardly off the mats after her bout’s conclusion, her dignity shone through in the pride with which she carried herself at earning her gold medal despite the setbacks—a sentiment which the crowd and her coach fully shared in, as the latter carried her out of the dojo after the bout’s conclusion.

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A DIV GIRLS (EXTRA LIGHTWEIGHT): YONG WEN YING

A walking paradox, Wen Ying took her spot opposite her opponent with the gait of a seasoned soldier, despite the decidedly apprehensive look on her face. The bout began, and a nerve-wracking hold for an almost-waza-ari in the first 30 seconds of the bout piqued the crowd’s bloodlust, prompting full-throated chants of “Hold! Hold! Hold!” from Rafflesian spectators around the dojo, but alas her HCI opponent managed to escape the hold to regain her footing and her chance at gold.

After a near-scare around the 2:10 mark—at which point her opponent had almost managed to throw her down for an ipponsmooth footwork and a strong defence soon gave Wen Ying a golden window of opportunity within the next 30 seconds. Veering dangerously close to the boundary, she pushed back into her opponent with all her might and dove straight at the chance for a full-bodied ippon, earning herself jubilated screams, a thunderous round of applause, and a gold medal. Her own elation was evident for all to see as she left the dojo at a sprint to share a round of hugs with her friends and teammates, who wasted no time in congratulations and “I told you so’s”.

As Wen Ying herself would share with us later, this moment carried special pride for her, being her first—and last, at least for the foreseeable future—gold medal of her judo career. Well-played and well-deserved, indeed.

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A DIV GIRLS (LIGHTWEIGHT): XEN-EL GOH

Next to start the bout against HCI was Xen-El, dogged determination studding her every move as she fought to get a secure grip on her opponent. Cheers from the team and alarmed gasps from the other school followed her dive to the ground, where both judokas wrestled valiantly to get each other on their backs. However, even with Xen-El’s well-timed sweeps and firm hold on the other’s lapel, an uchimata (inner thigh throw) executed by her opponent at the 20th second saw her on the ground to score an ippon for HCI. Although disappointment was evident on her face and the Rafflesian team, her courage and technique were equally indisputable—no matter the results of her bout, it can certainly be said that she put up a strong fight throughout her entire match.

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A DIV GIRLS (MIDDLEWEIGHT): KOM HWEE RU

Great expectations were entertained—and answered—for Hwee Ru’s bout; even before her name had been announced, the Rafflesian team had riled itself up in anticipation in chanting her name with all the vigour and exuberance of their utter confidence in her abilities. And little wonder that she was a crowd favourite—seeing as she was the only girl from her batch to continue the sport.

Striding confidently onto the mats, the command of “Hajime!” had barely been issued before Hwee Ru seized her grip and her gold medal in flipping her opponent in a complete revolution over her shoulder, in a textbook-perfect rendition of a morote seoinage (two armed shoulder throw). 6 seconds: that was all it took for Hwee Ru to claim her ippon and the A Division Girls’ overall gold. In a split second, everyone from the Raffles team (and even some from other schools) within the halls had deserted their composure entirely; the dojo exploded with people leaping to their feet, and the halls thundered with the disbelieving chorus of shrieking and hollering all at once.

Adrenaline still racing after her bout, Hwee Ru revealed after the fact that she’d “felt both nervous and excited” during her bout, “because if I win [the team] wins”. Adding to her stress was the fact that she had never won any championship title in the past, aside from a match she had participated in three years ago. Knowing now how her winning throw within those six seconds had secured the school’s championship title, she shared, “I felt so [agitated] that when I stepped out of the mats, I wanted to start crying, and then I actually did.”

Yet, even as she acknowledged her own contributions to her batch’s victory, she was quick to set the record straight that the rest of the team had worked equally hard, too. “I feel very proud of my teammates, especially my Y6 seniors, who stuck it out for super long. I know it’s a title we’ve been meaning to win for so long, and I feel like everyone worked super hard this year and they didn’t give up even when they were on the verge of breakdown,” she said. “There was a lot of team spirit. Even when they had CTs or other commitments, they still made it a point to come down and train, knowing that training as a team would help the team a lot more.”

Grinning, she added, “Shoutout to Tongchen (A Division Girls’ captain), who has been my training partner for the past 5-6 months, for keeping up with my unnecessary demands and for learning to breakfall for me because I’m a left player!”

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A DIV BOYS (EXTRA LIGHTWEIGHT): TEH GUANG ZHE

With the conclusion of the girls’ bouts for the day, it was time for the boys to step up, and for Guang Zhe’s turn to compete. Donning a HCI gi, the Judo team captain’s appearance on the mats elicited a round of applause and excited chants of his name from the crowd. The two opponents circled each other like sharks, hands darting in and out to seek an opening in the other’s defences and latch onto their lapels. It was to prove an exercise in patience for all involved. Although Guang Zhe fought well and hard—not once did he back down from nor follow his opponent’s multiple attempts to throw him onto the ground—the bout persisted in a stalemate for the first minute, much to the gnawing anxiety of all watching. It seemed as if they were evenly matched as every attack made was blocked by Guang Zhe’s agile instincts, until HCI’s fighter caught him off guard to score a waza-ari for his school at the midpoint of the bout.

There was desperation in both Guang Zhe’s and the Rafflesian team’s eyes to make a comeback and overturn the scores as time ticked down to 30 seconds, to 20, and then to 10. Despite running himself ragged with increasingly explosive entries, it was not to be. While HCI drew a shido (penalty) for excessive defensiveness, the medal ultimately went to the opponent for his earlier waza-ari. Even so, it was indubitable that the RI Judo captain had played remarkably, a sentiment staunchly shared by all as roaring cheers accompanied him back to his team.

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A DIV BOYS (MIDDLEWEIGHT): JUN WEI

Jun Wei’s bout soon asserted itself as the bout to watch, not for its judo techniques (though no less gripping than the other bouts’ had been) but for the way his bout managed to unite the usually disparate St. Joseph’s and Rafflesian camps into cheering for him and him alone. We were soon to discover that the reason for this was that Jun Wei had DSAed from SJI into RI, as both schools cast aside their established school cheers and chanted instead the time-honoured athlete’s cheer as one: “Let’s go Jun Wei, let’s go!”

Although HCI’s fighter was a formidable opponent, Jun Wei was undeterred by the tricky situations he was forced into—he was caught in a leg lock by the other judoka and yanked down to the ground to be flipped onto his back, but with deft technique and strength he pulled himself out of the trap and back onto his feet. The next 1.5 minutes saw them repeating that same pattern of grappling and throwing each other to the ground on their fronts to no avail, all indicative of evenly matched skill and defence.

There was no sign of a point throughout this protracted battle, apart from a shido for HCI, until Jun Wei’s attempt to pull his opponent to the ground was countered and a waza-ari was obtained by the other team. Then came the last minute of their bout—with not much time left at all, Jun Wei pressed on, attempting throw after throw when the other competitor left an opening. All were overturned, however, and the bout’s victory was thereafter awarded to HCI. Nevertheless, Jun Wei fought brilliantly till the very end, and his resolve and quick thinking earned him his fair share of plaudits once off of the mats.

Other Notable Bouts

A DIV GIRLS (HALF-HEAVYWEIGHT): YANG TONGCHEN

Tongchen did not play at finals, having already won gold the previous day.

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Edits courtesy of Melvin Loo, Vice-Captain of Judo (B Division Boys).

A DIV GIRLS (Raffles Represent): GLADYS TAN

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Edits courtesy of Melvin Loo, Vice-Captain of Judo (B Division Boys).

A DIV BOYS (Raffles Represent): AIDAN LI

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Edits courtesy of Melvin Loo, Vice-Captain of Judo (B Division Boys).

Closing Words

The Judo team truly reaped their rightful rewards of their labour that day—the boys’ team emerged as runners-up, while the girls clinched their hard-earned overall National School Games Judo champions of 2019 with four gold medals and one silver medal.

The medals they received weren’t the only things that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, though. A Division Boys’ Captain Teh Guang Zhe (19S03E), who has trekked through his Judo journey for six whole years, said, “It’s especially memorable for us seniors, since it’s the last year we’re [competing in interschools]. It’s also a different venue this year, but although the atmosphere was different, I can still feel the spirit of Judo, which is something I will hold dear to my heart.” He added that the team has “trained (their) hearts out” and that he was immensely proud of them, whether they had won a medal or not.

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Team Captain Guang Zhe receiving the silver trophy for the A Division Boys’ Team.

Sporting a broad grin to match after the prize ceremony, A Division Girls’ Captain Tongchen shared her pride for her batch’s efforts: “It was a hard fought victory—our batch wasn’t that talented, but we made up for it with hard work. Along with the help of Hwee Ru, we regained the title [of champions] from last year. [Earning the title of champions] was a touching moment for all, and it really was a dream team combination this year.” To her batch, she added that they did a good job and that they played very well, having done “nice throws” and “follow[ing] through with [their] principle of doing good judo and winning bouts with beautiful technique.”

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Team Captain Tongchen receiving the gold trophy for the A Division Girls’ Team.

Raffles Press would like to congratulate the Judo team on their remarkable achievements, and wish the Y6 judokas all the best in their future endeavours!

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The Raffles Judo team with their trophies at the end of the prize presentation ceremony.

 

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