Olympic hopeful flips competition

At 17, she was an Olympics representative and ranked ninth for her sport among women in her weight class. Now 21 and a full-time communication studies major, Nikki Kubes is training for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she hopes to once again leave her mark.Kubes’ sport is judo, a modern Japanese fighting style known for its throwing techniques, choke holds, pins and arm locks.

Her goal is to make the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she said she is confident she will improve on her last Olympic finish.

Female judo fighters peak physically in their mid-20s, Kubes said, which means her best years are ahead of her.

“I can already tell my judo has increased – my level of performance has increased since then,” Kubes said. “I want to prove that – barring injury – I can do a lot better than I did last time.”

Kubes said she thinks she can be the best judo fighter in the world and hopes to prove it in Beijing.

Raising a Fighter

Since she was 7 years old, Kubes has been training in judo, rising in the ranks and establishing herself as a fighter.

“My father wanted my sister and I to be able to defend ourselves, so we took tae kwon do at first, but we didn’t like it,” Kubes said. “A friend told him about judo and we just really took to it.”

Travis Kerren, a 31-year-old first-degree black belt in judo, trains with Kubes and said a judo match is one of the more physically grueling activities a person can participate in.

“It’s like sprinting and lifting weights for five minutes straight as hard as you possibly can, as fast as you possibly can,” Kerren said.

Her longtime coach, Tommy Dyer, said Kubes has been great at judo since she first started.

“She has been doing this since she was 7 years old, and she has always won,” Dyer said. “She has been good since day one.”

Road to Athens

Kubes, a Southwest High School graduate, was a natural at judo, and in 2003, she said she took the gold at the Judo National Championships, following up with a bronze in the 2004 championships.

“The first one was really important because I was so young,” Kubes said. “It was really a shock to the judo world.”

In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Kubes said she was the youngest member of the judo team and one of the younger members of the U.S. Olympic team.

“I always knew I was good, but when I started going to national competitions, it started becoming more clear,” Kubes said. “When I was 14 or 15, they started talking about the possibility of me going to the Olympics and it happened.”

In Athens, Kubes said, she finished in ninth place for her weight division.

“You hear about the Olympics all the time when you’re really young but you can’t really grasp the concept until you actually experience it,” Kubes said. “It was very overwhelming, and I was there with a lot of older judo players – more experienced judo players who really took me under their wing.”

Kubes said the women she faced in the Olympics were the most experienced fighters in the world and at times scary.

Returning to the Ring

Dyer said when a player reaches a certain skill level in judo, the real deciding factors for reaching the top go beyond fighting skill.

Kubes is good because of her attitude, he said.

“Attitude, perseverance, extremely hard worker and she’s got good parents,” Dyer said.

Kerren said Kubes is the most determined person he has ever known.

“She’s extremely competitive, refuses to lose and works harder than anyone else I know,” Kerren said.

After the 2004 Olympics, Kubes took a year off to experience “normal life” outside of judo.

“My life was judo, so I just experienced the fun in life instead of just training all the time,” Kubes said.

After a year, Kubes said, she was ready to pick things up again and she was not expecting much at first because of her break.

“You take a year off and you lose a lot of skills – at least you’d think,” Kubes said. “I actually got stronger. My body was maturing, and I went to the 2006 Junior Nationals and I dominated.”

By dominated, Kubes meant she took home every first place position she possibly could.

A Setback

Kubes soon took her sport on the road and headed to Argentina where she faced the world champion.

“There were no points on the board half way through the match; the world champion had no points on me. It was so cool,” Kubes said. “We then locked legs and I tore out my ACL and my MCL.”

Kubes had a torn ACL and MCL in Argentina and had no way of getting painkillers. She said Ace Bandages and cardboard had to do the trick.

Kubes said the rehabilitation for her leg was difficult and took about a year, but she rushed back so she could compete at nationals again.

“I took third place and it was awful,” Kubes said.

“If we didn’t have the injury there’s no telling where she could be right now, but it’s something that happens,” Dyer said.

Training for an Olympic judo fighter can only be described as grueling.

Each week, Kubes goes through weight training and conditioning: two-mile runs every other day, six days of judo training and on top of that, she is still a full-time student.

Working for Beijing

Still, it is not enough for Kubes, who will be taking the next semester off to train in Japan in one of the world’s most elite judo centers.

“She’ll be training day in, day out,” Dyer said. “She’s going to the No. 1 university in Japan, if not the world.”

Kerren said judo demands more mental strength than physical strength.

“You’re constantly getting beat down by your training partners and you just have to keep getting up,” Kerren said.

Kubes currently trains with the Fort Worth Judo Club, a nonprofit organization.

In order to finance her training in Japan and all the expenses that come with an Olympic hopeful, Kubes said she relies on fundraising and outside sponsorships.

Because the judo center is nonprofit, all donations are tax-deductible, Dyer said.

Judo was a family affair for Kubes, who started her judo journey with her older sister and TCU alumna Brigette Kubes.

Kubes said her sister also excelled in the sport, and had similar Olympic aspirations until Brigette Kubes’ neck was injured in a car accident on her way to church.

“We should have had both of them in the Olympics,” Dyer said.