Golembo Mixes Baseball, Judo Skills

Editor/Collegiate Baseball
© 2013 Collegiate Baseball

This story originally appeared in the April 5, 2013 edition of Collegiate Baseball newspaper.

ST. LOUIS. — Baseball players have always been considered superb athletes.

But rarely do you have one at the level of Max Golembo, freshman outfielder for Washington University in St. Louis, an NCAA Div. 3 school.

Not only is he a superb baseball player who was hitting .438 after six games for the Bears with an on-base percentage of .565, but he is one of the top judo fighters in the world at his weight.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Golembo’s goal is to represent the United States in the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics. In the process, he may be the first college baseball player in history to compete at an Olympics in the sport of judo.

Golembo got his start as a baseball player at the age of three when his dad Clark had him try to hit balls off a tee in the back yard.

Through the years, he played on youth baseball teams and then on an elite travel team in Illinois called Top Tier. He ultimately played his high school baseball at Adlai Stevenson H.S. in Lincolnshire, Ill., where he hit .418 as a senior with 22 RBIs and 20 runs scored.

But that was only one part of his life.

Judo was another passion of his that he began learning at the tender age of four.

“My dad worked with Bob Berland who earned a silver medal during the Olympics years ago,” said Golembo. “He told my dad that if he had a boy, it was important to have him learn judo. So I began working at judo at the age of four and have been refining my skills ever since.”

Golembo entered his first judo tournament at the age of six and won the championship.

“It was such a great feeling to win that I wanted to keep at it, and judo became a bigger and bigger part of my life. When I was 8-9, I spent the entire summer going to judo camp every day from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. And then I would practice at night. I was able to travel across the country to national events. And I kept winning.

“At the age of 15, I won at the nationals. But I was humbled very quickly when I fought in the under 17 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. I really wasn’t ready for that level of competition and got killed by my first round opponent.”

Qualified For Junior Worlds
After working hard at his craft for the next two years and gaining more strength, he qualified for the U.S. judo team at the Junior Worlds in the under 20 age category.

“It was held in Agadir, Morocco at the end of October in 2010,” said Golembo.

 “I was a lot more prepared for this level of competition this time. I really picked up the training and worked every day before and after school. I ended up taking fifth place in the world as I won four matches and lost two. I beat the guy who destroyed me two years earlier. What made this finish so special was that I was the first American male to place in the top five in the Junior World competition in the prior 25 years. And it was the best moment of my life.”

Golembo lost a quarterfinal match to a Japanese athlete. That put him in the loser’s bracket, and he had to win a match to qualify for the bronze medal match.

“That match was extremely exciting. I tied it up with 10 seconds left and won in overtime. But I lost the bronze medal match to another Japanese athlete.”

While Golembo still has great passion for the sport of judo, there simply were not judo scholarships to be found at colleges. So he kept training in judo but began focusing more on baseball during the summer of his junior year in high school. And ultimately, the coaches at Washington University in St. Louis offered him a position on the team.

“I still work on judo. But there isn’t a club at Washington University. But I can train with a friend in St. Louis about 15 miles away which I do at 6 a.m. when I am able to. When I go home, I will train much harder in judo with my coach. It will be a strict regimen at that time.”

Golembo was asked to explain what judo training entails since most people involved in baseball have no idea how rigorous it is.

“When I am home, I get up in the morning and do weight training and then work with my coach on different grips, perfecting throws and making myself better in this discipline. I will typically run 2-3 miles but also do some spring workouts to increase my agility.

“It is a very structured program from some amazing coaches. I also have worked with an Olympic coach who was in Sydney, Australia at that Olympics and another coach who was on the German national team.

“When I have fought these coaches, they have kicked my rear end around in practice. But they have given me a template to train and achieve my goal of being in the Olympics. They know what it takes.”

Challenging Training
Golembo said his training schedule for judo was difficult in high school.

“I had to get up and train at 5 a.m. since classes started at 7 a.m.. But you have to do the work to get better.”

Golembo said that the top judo experts in the world are mostly from Europe and Asia. The Japanese always have incredible athletes who dominate the sport.

The more tournaments you participate in and do well, the higher your world ranking is.

“The ranking changes every year. The key year for me will be 2015. So I need to compete at key tournaments to be in a position to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. I not only have to be one of the elite athletes in judo at 178 pounds in the USA, but I also have to be one of the top 25 in the world.”

Golembo was asked if he has ever had friends or coaches who have offered to join him in a judo match.

“Recently on our baseball team at Washington, one of my good friends Chris Lowery, the third baseman on the team, challenged me to a match. He kept egging me on to wrestle him. Finally I had heard enough and said let’s do it now. So my teammates got in a circle, and we squared off. Chris is about 6-foot-2 and 215-pounds, and is a lot bigger than me. At first, I just messed around with him.

“Then I made a quick move, picked him up and threw him down to the ground. He got the wind knocked out of him and didn’t want any more of me. Nobody else on the team has challenged me since,” laughed Golembo.

“Another time in high school as a sophomore, an assistant baseball coach on the team couldn’t believe I was as talented in judo as he had heard. This coach was 6-foot-3 and about 240 pounds. He kept telling me that he could take me down nearly every practice.

“One time, he doused me with water while he was working on the field. I didn’t appreciate that and said, ‘Let’s go right now.’ So he dropped the hose, and we squared off. I made a move, picked him up and threw down on the ground hard and had him in a very compromising position as he yelled for me to stop. I asked him if he was OK, and he was. But he never mentioned judo again after that point.”

Golembo said he has never utilized his judo skills to help friends out of sticky situations.

“I am not the type of person who looks for fights. The only exception is judo matches.”