LONDON -- By half past 3 p.m. Monday afternoon, U.S. judoka Marti Malloy could finally step off the emotional rollercoaster. After five matches, two of which she won in overtime, a draining day had finally culminated on the mat at the ExCeL Arena in London with an open opportunity. A bronze medal was on the line, and the defending Olympic champion in her grip, when the 26-year-old Malloy made her move, throwing down Italy's Giulia Quintavalle by sweeping her leg out from under her. The takedown earned her the match, a medal and a reason to celebrate after just an hour earlier, she was devastated, having lost in the final seconds of the semifinal.
"It's the hardest thing to come back from that upset," she said. "You want to be mad and angry, but my coach [Jimmy Pedro] pulled me aside and said, 'You came here to win.... Focus on the bronze.' So that's what I did."
Malloy's medal is the U.S. women's first in the lightweight (57 kg) class and just the second overall (Ronda Rousey won a bronze in Beijing in the middleweight division). And with 2010 World Champion Kayla Harrison, a medal favorite, set to fight later this week, the U.S. could see its best judo medal haul ever.
Those prospects, however, did not seem so promising five days ago. Looking at the draw, Malloy, who came into the Olympic tournament ranked 11th in the world, saw her first-round opponent and cringed. Telma Monteiro, the third-ranked judoka in the lightweight division, had been tabbed an early favorite to take gold in London. She had won the Grand Slam tournament and European championships earlier this year and at Friday's Opening Ceremonies, she carried the flag for Portugal. In three career bouts against her, Malloy had gone 0-3.
"Once I saw my draw, I honestly got a lot of anxiety about it," she admitted. "I was worried. This is the kind of person you fight in the final and I had her in the first round. But I just saw it as a test. If you can beat this person in the first round, you can go all the way."
Pedro, himself a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, readied his fighter. "All the pressure is on her," he assured her. "Stay close, don't chase her, and you'll win." Their game plan worked. After an even match that featured no throws and no penalties, Malloy was able to throw Monteiro in the sudden death overtime period, pulling off a major upset and paving her path to the podium. In her next bout, she threw Yadinys Amaris of Colombia for an ippon score (judo's equivalent to a knockout) in the first 40 seconds, and won a judge's decision when neither she nor opponent Irina Zablundina of Russia could score in the five-minute match or three minutes of overtime.
"After that quarterfinal, I was on cloud nine," she says. "My whole plan for the day had worked out."
After defeating Zablunda, Malloy stood in the media mixed zone and intently watched the television showing the other quarterfinal. She would face the winner next, and so she surveyed the options. She had beaten the Hungary's Hedvig Karakas, lost to the Romanian, Corina Caprioriu, in a bronze medal match at World Championships last year. When Caprioriu scored in overtime, Malloy nodded and stalked off to the training area.
Their semifinal match was close, and as the end of the five minutes neared, Malloy felt she was controlling the fight, like she had the lead. But with just seven ticks left on the clock, she saw an opening and tried to make a move. Caprioriu countered and put Malloy on her back, robbing Malloy a chance to fight for gold.
"You know what, the last time I fought her, she beat me in the same way," Malloy recalled. "We were in overtime and there were 40 seconds left and I made a bad attack, and she jumped on my arm and arm-barred me. She's a clutch player, stays sharp until the very end.... She did that to me again today. Same person, same way. Ugh, I've got some stuff to work on."
She smiles a bit. Malloy may be off the roller coaster for the day, with a medal around her neck, but she is still in for a wild ride.