By Kelly Gneiting

“I’m sorry sir, the flight’s full.” said the United Airlines ticket agent.

My heart sank.  I have a size 60 waist, and I’m catching a 14-hour flight to Hong Kong, this year’s location for the World Sumo Championships—a Who’s Who event for the biggest bullies on earth.

I had been to the World Championships five  other times—in Germany, Japan, Japan, Thailand, and Estonia—as well as the World Games in 2009 in Taiwan, and the World Combat Games in 2010 in Beijing, China—both organized by the International Olympic Committee.

In a sport dominated by Asia and Europe, with athletes who train daily, and who fight for monetary rewards from their government (last year a Bulgarian who won the “lightweight division” received $50,000), Americans have always been in the mix—fighting only for glory.

I sat down inside the plane next to a slender Asian woman, my head slightly tucked in apology for her unfortunate circumstances.  Seconds later, to my delight, she cheerfully pulled out her Android and began sorting through what looked like flight seats online.

“S,cuse me, she said, moments later.  I see where there’s a vacant seat.  I’ll go sit there!”  With a smile, she hastily popped out of her seat, grabbed some belongings, and began making her way down the aisle—bobbing in and out of passengers who were still looking for their seat.

I was saved!  Two seats all the way to Hong Kong!  Yeah!!!

Arriving in Hong Kong, I weighed in at 420 pounds, and was set to compete in the heavyweight category—one of three weight classes (with lightweight, and middleweight).  The amount of mass I carry around with me is hard to hide, but what isn’t are the long hours of training I, and the rest of the U.S. team, has underwent as athletes in this sport.

For me, personally, in my quiet room, I’d fire out at invisible opponents, pushing them to the edge of the “ring” (wall), and out of bounds.  In this battle-sport of giants (for me), I have to be victorious over and over again against these invisible opponents in order to affect my mentality, building confidence when the REAL enemy stands in front of me.

I was impressed by the city of Hong Kong, to say the least.  I immediately recognized the metropolis as the probable backdrop in various movies that I’ve seen, including Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, and 1982’s Blade Runner.  Of particular interest were sky high buildings in the general shape of a plus sign—with each of the 4 segments of the plus being compact living quarters, and the middle, space for an elevator which ran from the ground up to the skyward top.

After competing in seven overall World Championships, I was one of the older athletes, now among youth.  It was fun, however, to see and converse with other international friends and acquaintances I’d only seen at this particular gathering.  My overall record going into this year’s competition was 12 wins and 13 losses—with my best outings coming in 2006 (making it to the semi-finals before getting knocked out of the competition).

But this was not to be my year.  I ran into an Eastern European bloc (literally and figuratively).  My defeats came at the hands of Ukraine—who ended up taking second to Russia in the overall competition—and Venezuela, a 500 pound beast who I’d love a rematch with (I had previously never lost to a South American country).

Overall, including the team competition, the record for America was 3 wins, Tyler Olsen, Kena Heffernan, and myself (a bye), and 14 losses. (Andrew Freund, the U.S. runner-up in lightweight men, substituted for Trent Sabo, who could not attend.)

It’s amazing to go half way across the world for about 45 seconds of overall athletic competition, but always worth it.

Next summer is the World Games, in Cali, Colombia, and October 2013 is the World Combat Games in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The U.S. Team will be representing our Country and our Continent in both Competitions.  Wish us luck!  May we produce another medalist as we did a few years ago in Estonia (Trent Sabo).

Report of the U.S. Team’s Trip to Hong Kong for the WSC