By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
When Colton Brown fights, he comes out swinging. The Piscataway, New Jersey native doesn't hold back. He goes for "ippon" -- judo's form of a knockout.
"I try to be as aggressive as possible," Brown said. "I am considered to be a big thrower in judo. Most of the matches I win, I don't win by small points. I usually win by full points. I'm always going after the biggest throw. I'm always looking to throw my opponent on their back. If I'm going to lose, I'd rather lose like that rather than holding back and regretting it later."
The 24-year-old has enjoyed a remarkable journey on his way to representing the United States in the 90-kilogram (198-pound) class at the upcoming Rio Olympics. When Colton graduated Piscataway High School, his father, Jeff, and famed two-time U.S. Olympic Team head coach Yoshisada Yonezuka suggested he travel to Japan to train at Nihon University in Chiyoda, delaying a career at San Jose State where he would eventually become captain and a three-time national champion before winning the 2015 Pan American Open.
Brown honed his mental toughness by pushing through the pain barrier in a foreign land. For four months he was put through rigorous sessions for at least two hours in the morning and four hours at night.
"That experience changed my life as a whole," Brown said. "I was 18, I didn't speak any Japanese and I had rarely been out of the country prior to that experience. I got thrown into the Japanese dormitories with guys that spoke nothing but Japanese. Yet, we're training six or seven hours a day. It was a grueling experience. There were days when I broke two toes or a finger. ... If it wasn't for that experience, I don't think I'd be where I am today. I had to dig deep and push myself through uncomfortable situations.
"I learned the Japanese mentality while I was in Japan," he continued. "The best way to learn something in Judo is to create muscle memory. So, when I'm extremely tired and exhausted -- I have to keep doing it. I have to force myself to fight. The more I learn about the sport, the more I learn that's literally what it's all about. Coach Yonezuka taught me to learn by doing and the more you practice, the more you get out of it. He was the one who sent me to Nihon. That was his university and it is known for having the toughest, longest practices in Japan to this day."
Yonezuka passed away in 2014 due to complications of Myelodysplastic syndrome. Brown said he is grateful for the doors his longtime coach opened for him and wishes to honor his legacy by earning an Olympic medal in Rio.
"I know it would have meant the world to him," Brown said. "He's not had a lot of Olympians that he's brought up since they were 7 or 8 years old. To get a medal, that would be an incredible tribute to him. As I got older, he would spend more time with me. When we would go out to dinner, he would tell me how proud he was of me. He's always on my mind every day through training. When I think about quitting, I think about what he would want me to do."
Brown's current Olympic head coach, Jimmy Pedro, was the last American male to medal at the Olympics when he earned bronze at the Athens Games in 2004. Brown said he sees it as his personal mission to raise the popularity of judo in the United States.
"He's one of the reasons why I wanted to be in the Olympics," Brown said. "I remember going to one of his clinics when I was younger. I watched the Athens Olympics from home and I watched him win that medal.
"To medal, it would be great for the sport," he added. "You would be proving you're one of the best in the world and one of the best Americans ever to do judo. Judo is growing. We're getting a bigger following on social media now. People are getting more excited about judo and know about the sport. A medal would be huge to grow the sport. I get butterflies in my stomach every time I fly back to New Jersey because you have a huge following of people who are genuinely cheering you on. I want to put judo on the map."
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
for more features.