One Last Shot

By Brion O'Connor / November / December 2004
June 13th, 2007

The emptiness started gnawing at judo champion Jimmy Pedro during the winter of 2002. A year and a half removed from his most bitter disappointment—a fifth-place finish at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney—Pedro was in Salt Lake City to watch the winter games. When his good friend the speed skater Derek Parra raced to a gold medal, Pedro felt the embers of his own competitive fires being rekindled. He began to look toward Athens in 2004.

With the blessing of his wife, Marie, Pedro started to train the following September at his studio in Methuen, Massachusetts. In March 2003 he began to compete again. “I came back as if I was seventeen or eighteen years old again, and was a hungry kid,” he says. “I started at the local tournaments, getting matches under my belt, getting experience, trying to get rid of the rustiness. I just worked my way up, step by step, back to international events.” 

Over the next two years Pedro compiled a 66–4 tournament mark. Judo requires the cat-quick reflexes of a fencer, the strength of a power lifter, and the endurance of a long-distance runner. Athletes in the sport typically peak in their mid- to late twenties, yet Pedro was thirty-three years old when he arrived in Athens. Through sheer grit, he won six of his seven matches in a brutal daylong competition, capturing a bronze medal after his only loss, to eventual gold medal winner Lee Won Hee of South Korea.

Then he called it quits, this time, he says, for good. “My performance in Athens was one that I’m very proud of,” Pedro says. “It was very fulfilling, and ended my career on a very positive note, with a performance unlike any other. I really had to dig deep to pull this one out.”

No one ever questioned Pedro’s heart, except maybe Pedro himself. He had won a bronze medal at the Atlanta Games in 1996 but was devastated after the Sydney games, where he lost in a shocking early-round upset to Korean Yong-Sin Choi. At the time, Pedro was the reigning world champion in his 160-pound weight class and the most decorated judoka ever produced by the United States. But after the humiliation in Sydney, Pedro walked away from competition.

Then came Parra’s golden performance, and Pedro’s revival. “I always expected myself to become the best in the world at my sport,” he explains. “And to win an Olympic medal had always been my dream, winning gold. So when I didn’t do it in 1996, and I didn’t do it in 2000, I found the drive and the passion were still there. I had a burning desire to succeed, at any cost. I would give 100 percent of myself in pursuit of that dream. And I always kept that goal in mind.”

It’s ironic that in addition to running the martial arts studio he owns in Wakefield, Massachusetts, Pedro works for the online employment giant Monster Inc. helping athletes make the transition from the world of competition to the world of work. “I can totally empathize with them,” he says. “The athletes are comfortable speaking with me, because I know exactly what they’re going through.”

The goal of the Monster program, he says, is to create an online community for athletes. “It’s a chance for people to connect with one another, to network,” says Pedro. “I do my best to help the athletes determine what it is they want to do, and to look for a company that they’d like to work for. Then I try to make that connection happen.” Pedro is well aware of the alternative—athletes clinging to their dreams too long. “I think that’s the saddest moment in sport,” he says, “when an athlete doesn’t call it quits when they should.” The danger with such athletes, he adds, is that their pride will end up diminishing their accomplishments.

Did Pedro worry after Sydney that he might sully his own hard-won reputation? “That’s the difference with me,” he explains. “I would never have competed if I didn’t think I had a shot. I’d never hang on too long. For me, it wasn’t about making another Olympic team and participating in the Games. I’d already done that three times. I went to these Olympics thinking I had a legitimate shot to win, and I proved that was the case.”

Pedro, who was inducted into the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame in May, earned that shot in convincing fashion by handily winning the Olympic trials in early June and securing a spot on his fourth U.S. Olympic team (his training partner, Alex Ottiano ’98, earned his second Olympic berth).

“I know I gave it everything I possibly could,” he says. “I performed to the best of my abilities in every single one of my events, and I prepared as best I could. This is where it’s netted out: a World Championship, four Olympic teams, and two Olympic medals. I can be proud of that. And satisfied.”

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November / December 2004