At age 28, Christal Ransom is still a very young woman. But as an athlete, she's beginning to feel the physical strain of a life spent committed to a very physical sport. One of the world's best in women's judo, Ransom missed out on the 2008 Olympics because of a last-minute change. Now aiming for the 2012 Games in London, she says that it's make or break.
Originating in Japan, judo is a grappling martial art, in which contestants try to throw each other to the mat, then get their opponent to "tap out" by using a series of crippling scissor locks, choke holds and arm bars. It's not for the faint of heart. While your average martial art involves speed of fists and feet, Judo doesn't allow punches or kicks. Given that, it's often about brute force — about making your body overcome and subdue the body of the opponent in the most literal way possible.
Christal Ransom doesn't look like the kind of woman who'd be involved in such a rough-and-tumble sport. Now living in Colorado Springs to be closer to the U.S. Olympic Team training facility there, she said a passion for the ice during her days at Horace Mann Junior High led her to the judo mat. "I got started when I was about 14," she said. "I actually used to play ice hockey in Little Rock. I was the only girl and I needed more balance. So I just kind of picked up judo. I didn't even really know what it was." Since graduating from Central High School, she has committed herself to the sport. In May, she won the Judo Senior National Championship in her 63-kilogram weight class, and is a favorite to make the Olympic national team for 2012.
Her rise to the top hasn't been without some setbacks. In the summer of 2002, Ransom's ankle was shattered when a friend's Corvette crashed. That injury, which had her hobbling on an ankle full of pins for months, set her back far enough that it likely cost her a spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team. In 2008, Ransom qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team, but saw her dreams of a gold medal in Beijing stymied when her weight class was dropped from the competition.
"It's kind of a confusing situation," she said. "I kinda made the Olympic team, but didn't get to go, so it doesn't really count ... It's depressing. It makes you feel like you've wasted a ton of time."
Ray Ransom is Christal's dad. He attends many of her matches. A former champion wrestler at Jacksonville High School back in the early 1960s, he understands his daughter's drive to win. "Man, you cannot believe the kind of shape that child's in," he said. "She gets that scissor lock around their neck and she's put two girls unconscious. If they don't pat out, they go to sleep... If you don't pat the mat, she's not going to turn you loose until you do. You might get up and kick her butt, so she's gonna leave you down there." He said that even though Christal is one of the most successful women in her sport, she keeps things in perspective. "She just lets her fighting speak louder than words," he said. "She's a very humble young lady. Now, every time she gets a medal, she comes over and hangs it around my neck and says, 'Dad, this is for you.' I think that's great."
For Christal, the next two years are all about keeping her eyes on the prize and her fingers crossed that her weight class makes it to the London games. She trains twice a day, seven days a week, alternating between weights and cardio. In between, she trains constantly at throws, choke holds and leg locks. When interviewed, she had just got back from a meet in London, and was jetting out two days later for another competition in Brazil. She said the next Olympics will be extremely hard to qualify for, with only the top 14 women and the top 22 men in the U.S. being allowed to go. Whatever happens in 2012, she admits it will likely be the end of her career in judo.
"I'll always do something," she said. "I'll always stay in shape. I might start playing pickup hockey again... I'm sure I'll do something, but something where you don't get beat up so bad, that's for sure."