The journey was long, but Volmar finally gets Olympic chance

LAS VEGAS -- His strong, wide neck screams power. His carefully chosen words reveal a 21st century samurai. His clipped Creole accent projects the Caribbean in him. The handshake belongs to an American sailor who has stood guard. The tears well up in his soft brown eyes when his deep feelings of victory and pain spill over.

His is a layered portrait of politics and sport, of motivations and circumstance. But we haven't yet mentioned Adler Volmar's most recent descriptor: 100 kg (220 pounds) member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic judo team.

This won't be his first visit to the spotlighted five-ringed stage. He competed for Haiti, a nation in constant turmoil when he grew up there, at the Atlanta Olympics. He was 19. He lost one match and was swiftly eliminated.

But much has happened to him since those 1996 Games. Most of it wasn't easy, particularly how he earned his Olympic spot in Las Vegas last Friday night.

Yolette Volmar was pregnant. It was March 1977. Traveling from her home in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, she went to visit her sister in Miami, and the energetic child began to seek his escape. A Caesarian section was required.

Little did she know she'd given birth to an Olympian. And, thanks to the U.S. Constitution, he was an instant American. Adler Volmar would benefit from that fact -- and its attached passport -- forever more.

Soon, the family returned to the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, but they weren't poor. They owned and operated a home-improvement warehouse, a local, scaled down Home Depot. They had some ties to the series of dictatorial governments. Adler's father owned land, was a small businessman and, when in the Haitian military, had been a driver for President Francois Duvalier, "Papa Doc."

The Volmars were "haves" in a nation of have-nots.

One Friday in 1990, Adler, a tall 13-year-old, got into a scuffle with a schoolmate, a typical hormonal spat between teenaged boys who can't be anything but boys.

It passed, until Monday, when his antagonist wanted to continue the fight. "It wasn't finished for him," Volmar said.

The bully brought friends with knives and nunchucks to continue the spat. Volmar was beaten. He didn't want his mother to know.

Every day after school, he'd return home, kiss her and say, "Hi, Mummy." On this day, he avoided her. She wondered why, until she saw the gash on his forehead.

Never again. Volmar began taking self-defense lessons from Leandre Innocent at the Union Judo Club in Cap-Haïtien. He dived into the martial arts with a passion. His mother (by then, his parents had divorced) constructed rope pulls near their house to build his strength, deepen his discipline and hasten his development.

Within two years, remarkably, Volmar earned a black belt. Two years later, when he was 17 and there was political trouble in Haiti, his mother sent him to live with aunts in the United States. He began to compete in the U.S. That passport, what a handy document.

It allowed him to travel places where Haitians, their government a pariah, could not, where a Haitian couldn't obtain a visa. He began winning internationally. He became one of Haiti's most notable athletes. He carried its flag at the 1996 Olympics. He was a star.

What an odd setting for such a dignified man.

It is last Sunday, barely 36 hours after he won his Olympic trials championship with a controversial, go-to-the-video overtime victory against Brian Picklo.

He is sitting in a noisy alcove, attached to one of those ubiquitous Starbucks in the airplane-hangar-like lobby of the dimly lit Luxor hotel, distinctly over-the-top with Egyptian-themed objects everywhere.

Volmar, clean-shaven, balding, his remaining hair shortly cropped, is all muscle in a red T-shirt bearing the U.S. Olympic Committee's current marketing slogan: "Amazing Awaits." From the knees up, Volmar is a picture of health.

Behind him, tattooed women in tank tops try not to spill their beers and fat men in Nebraska Cornhuskers football jerseys carry boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

It is 9:15 in the morning. Volmar, his military DNA apparent, his judo calmness clear, looks out of place amid the cacophony of Vegas. But he adapts well.

He is 31, a retired U.S. Navy Petty Officer, fourth-degree black belt, father of three and owner of two horribly mangled knees. He recalls how he joined the U.S. Navy. Or, rather, how the U.S. Navy nabbed him. And he's explaining -- rationalizing? -- how it all turned out for the best.

The story is murky, but here's how he remembers it.

In 1998, living in Fort Lauderdale with an aunt, mail arrived. It wasfrom the Selective Service System. He must sign up. At the time, Volmar's English was good, but not great. His Creole accent was strong. His understanding of the American way of life was lacking.

"I'd heard of the draft, but didn't know if it was still in effect," he told ESPN.com.

So, he went to a Navy recruiting office and the sales pitch began. He wanted to be a doctor. Oh, the Navy can help with that, the recruiter said. He wanted to be an Olympic judo player. Oh, the Navy has an elite sports program for that, the recruiter said.

"I thought it was my civic obligation," Volmar said.

"Trust me," the recruiter said.

By January, 1999, Volmar was in the U.S. Navy.

"They were excited to have me," he said. "I don't know the proper word, but in a way, I was tricked. But it turned out very good, very good."

At the very least, it was a solid excuse to get a release from the Haitian sports authorities so he could compete for the U.S.

But, in fact, real duty called. He was trained as a combat medic. He wasn't instantly assigned to the Navy's sports program. The 2000 Olympics passed. His only judo was training other sailors in self-defense at the massive Newport, R.I., Naval Station.

He met men from various parts of the nation, with accents as odd as his -- from Nashville or Nashua or New York, white and yellow and brown and black. He was thrown into the American melting pot.

"I was deep-fried into the American system,'' he said.

But judo continued to call him. He'd learned U.S. Olympic great Jimmy Pedro had a judo club in Lawrence, Mass., 90 miles away. So, after working at his post from 5 a.m., he'd hop in a car and race the 98 miles to Pedro's gym. An officer at the Newport base learned of Volmar's devotion to judo. That original promise of becoming a part of the Navy's elite sports program was fulfilled.

And Volmar started to deliver. He traveled to the fabled Kano Cup in Japan in January 2003 and finished a respectable seventh in the world. The 2004 Olympics seemed in reach -- until March 2003. At a training camp in Poland, he tore two ligaments in his right knee. He somehow recovered well enough to compete at the Olympic trials in 2004. But it wasn't to be. His plate was full. He had married, had two children and was tending to his mother, who was suffering from breast cancer.

He didn't give up. His Navy gig completed in 2006, he began personal exercise training at a 24 Hour Fitness Club. He began winning medals domestically and internationally. Beijing, here he came.

Or so he thought.

Which takes us to last Friday at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus, the home of the Runnin' Rebels and site of the U.S. Olympic judo trials, a trials he almost missed.

Last January, as he prepared for a host of pre-Olympic meets, he was working out with fellow U.S. national team member Anthony Turner, a heavyweight. Volmar, feeling strong, threw Turner into the air.

Turner, who weighs more than 300 pounds, landed on Volmar's left knee -- the good knee. Two ligaments shattered. Cartilage was torn. Diagnosis: very, very bad. Olympic trials? Maybe, said the surgeon.

"February 5 was Super Tuesday," Volmar said of the huge day of political primaries across America. "It was Super Tuesday on my knee." That's the day doctors repaired his left leg, but created the drama of what was to be.

Endless rehab. Non-stop encouragement from his wife, Crystal. Financial contributions from personal training clients. Pool therapy. By virtue of his strong 2007 season, he was still ranked No. 1 at 100 kg for the trials.

But time was running out. Volmar didn't get back into full training until two-and-a-half weeks before Friday's decisive matches. He didn't compete until a week before the trials, flying all the way to El Salvador to get some fights.

Word was out among judo players: If you face Volmar, go for his knees. In a sport of honor, this was disrespectful, but Volmar had heard the talk. He was mindful of it.

Friday, in his first fight of the day, against the former Michigan State wrestler Picklo, Volmar lost. "What you saw of me was not me," he said. "The injury was coming back to me."

In the mental game of judo, Volmar's mind was wandering at the worst time.

Had he won that first fight, two more victories against lesser-ranked opponents would have been on tap and would have almost certainly assured him a spot on the Olympic team. Still, because of his longstanding No. 1 ranking, he received a reprieve. He'd get a rematch with Picklo.

This time, it would be best-of-three. Winner goes to Beijing. In the locker room at Thomas & Mack, his coach, German Velazco, broke into full pep-talk mode.

"This is your moment! This is your time!" he yelled to Volmar. "Do you believe in God? ... There's no better day for you.''

The scene in the arena was echoey and overstimulated. Judo shared the floor with the Olympic wrestling trials. As a judo fight occurred on the north end of the building, as many as three wrestling matches were under way toward the south end. It was a swirl of cheers and oohs and ahs covered with hip-hop music.

Volmar and Picklo took to the mat for their first round of the best-of-three. Volmar won, needing all five minutes of the contest. He felt good. He was exacting in his motions on the mat. He was unemotional. His white judogi robe sometimes became disheveled. He neatly retied his black belt across the robe. He was calm.

But in the second match, Volmar wanted to adjust his approach, Picklo attacked and recovered and won, needing overtime to do so. The series was tied.

It came down to this -- a final, decisive rubber match, one fight after years of waiting, years of training.

"I was feeling everything," Volmar said. "I felt the judo. I felt the doctors. I felt my mom. This was for me, but it was also for my kids, my wife, for the people who gave me their [frequent flier] miles so I could travel to competitions.''

The fight began.

"There was no clock for me," he said. "I didn't feel myself breathing. I was deaf. Anything I heard was a mile away. My knee was screaming with pain.''

The third and decisive fight went its full five minutes. No winner. Overtime. Sudden death. Volmar, knowing his knee was vulnerable, decided to attack.

But Picklo countered, and wisely. He got a hold of Volmar and was lifting him. It was all happening in slow motion. Volmar was in the air. And, as he was, he found enough strength in his sore left leg to torque his body. As he did, he found himself flying atop Picklo. When they landed with a thud, Picklo was on his back, Volmar on his side.

They both instantly jumped up, their arms raised, in supposed victory. Each believed he had won the battle and the Olympic spot. Spectators who understood the sport cheered. One official said the point was Picklo's. Another said it was Volmar's.

"Thank God, there was video," Volmar said.

Minutes past. Excruciating minutes. The tape told officials the point was Volmar's.

"As I'm telling you now,'' he said, "my heart is coming out of me.''

Volmar will represent the nation of his birth in Beijing come August.

As he rose to leave the Las Vegas hotel lobby and head home to Coral Springs, Fla., to continue to rehab his knee, as he checked his BlackBerry for congratulatory text messages from Haiti and Israel and beyond, he wanted to clean up a loose end.

Remember those boys, 18 years ago, the ones with the nunchucks? A few years later, they wound up joining the judo club where he trained. He would go on to instruct them in self-defense.

Such is the power of judo. It brought enemies together as friends. Such is the spirit of Adler Volmar.

Jay Weiner is a sports journalist based in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.