The fate of top seeds is observed by all, at every event, in every age category. It is a subject for comment and for statisticians and we must accept that to arrive anywhere in pole position adds a layer of pressure and expectation that the unseeded and even the lower seeds do not have to contend with.

At the Junior World Championships in Portugal, day 1 was the playground of the 4 lightest categories and under the spotlight were Marcus Auer (AUT) at -60 kg, Merve Azak (TUR) at -48 kg, Jordon Greenbank (AUS) at -66 kg and Giulia Carna (ITA) at -52 kg.

Marcus Auer suffered in his first contest, a second round match-up with unseeded Israeli, Yam Wolczak. Both judoka are active on the World Judo Tour though, so active that they already have major placings and impressive senior ranking. So the number one seed in Odivelas lost out but the stats say something more interesting than the simple head-to-head result. Auer is 3rd in the world in juniors whereas the Israeli sits at 27th, however their order is reversed in seniors with Wolczak already 25th in the world at seniors and likely to be in direct qualification for the Paris Olympic Games. Auer is at 54th on the WRL having reached the last 16 in Dushanbe, Linz and most significantly in Doha this year. It is possible for them both to qualify for Paris. What is certain is that both athletes value the junior stage while working at the next step. It is all happening simultaneously.

Marcus Auer (AUT) competing at the Tashkent World Championships for seniors, 2022.

Azak, also lost, to Dudina (AIN), someone she has not had the chance to fight or study before. Azak is current double junior European champion and with several gold medals on the junior scene, could have been seen as a sure thing in Odivelas but it wasn’t to be. Like the Austrian athlete, she has impressive points from the senior events of 2022 and 2023 and already features at 46 on the WRL. The junior age category is not her only focus. Does that soften the blow, offering a wider view?

Azak competing at the 2022 Antalya Grand Slam, in blue.

Greenbank lost in round 3 against the Japanese athlete in the category. He is the least experienced of the 4 top seeds on day one and doesn’t have the references at the senior level yet. He is perhaps an anomaly, the exception among the best of the current juniors.

Number 1 seed Greenbank (AUS) lost out to Fukuda (JPN) in Portugal.

Carna made it to the final though and with relative ease, the only top seed to reach a medal contest at all. She is a double junior world medallist already, including one gold, has competed in a grand slam final and even qualified for this year’s World Judo Masters. Carna, like Auer, Wolczak and Azak, also has the possibility ahead of her, to climb through the Olympic rings.

Carna (ITA) on her way to the -52 kg final in Odivelas.

What can we take from this? Perhaps those most prepared for the senior level are the ones who enjoy the junior years alongside their senior debuts, focusing on development and winning equally, writing a sincere and comprehensive book of solutions and ideas and maybe, most importantly, an analysis of the gaps in their own judo.

Young Carna (ITA) among the senior elite at the 2022 Hungary Grand Slam.

These young athletes are close to achieving both their short and long term targets and without all of the pressure being enveloped in a single event or age category, their broad view is likely to be a part of why we see such mature and calm performances from them all. Even in loss their behaviour is as we expect from seniors and so in many different ways the overlapping of environments is yielding results and building rounded judoka. This hypothesis deserves digestion; coaches and national teams must decide what is right for their athletes but there is no escaping the need for continuous monitoring of how to make successful transitions between categories. Some of the juniors are doing that so well!

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