SINGAPORE -- When he was a toddler, Max Schneider was one of those kids who got bullied in pre-school. The normal stuff, he says now. Hey, kid, I want your toy -- and the next thing you'd know, Max would be on the floor. This would not do, Max's mom, Adelina, decided. She was concerned her son would always be on the small side and picked on. So she found a judo program in the neighborhood in Chicago where they lived, and put him in the class.
What do you know -- Max Schneider turned out to be a natural at judo, a sport that many Americans assuredly have heard of but couldn't tell you the first thing about.
A couple days ago here at the first-ever Youth Olympic Games, Max won gold in the boys' 66-kilogram class (that's 146 pounds). That was the first-ever gold medal for the United States in an Olympic-category judo event.
The very next night, Katelyn Bouyssou of Hope, R.I., won gold in the girls' 52-kilo class (114 pounds).
Two golds in two days -- the American team one of only two to win two gold medals in a sport in which nations were allowed here to enter, in total, one boy and one girl. South Korea was the other.
The Americans, though, will leave these Youth Games as the only judo team to hold opponents scoreless. Again: neither Max nor Katelyn gave up even a single point.
American performance in judo over the years on the Olympic stage calls to mind the sort of thing a boy who lives on the North Side of Chicago would know a lot about -- the Cubs, and how they pretty much never win the big one.
American men have won nine Summer Games medals, American women one. The men have won three silvers and six bronzes; Ronda Rousey won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the women's 70-kilo class (154 pounds).
That's it, and judo has been on the Olympic program now for two generations.
Judo is of course one of the martial arts. It's not taekwondo, where they kick each other. It's not boxing, where they slug each other with gloves. In wrestling, they wear tight-fitting singlets and grunt like forest animals.
In judo, the competitors wear a woven uniform called a gi. The point is to throw your opponent down or otherwise subdue him (or her) or force him (or her) to submit.
There's a bigber-picture ethos to judo. The point is to improve one's self physically, mentally, even emotionally.
It's something of a mystery how in a nation of 300 million people and who knows how many self-improvement gurus the United States holds zero Summer Olympics gold medals in the sport.
Then again, it figures that at these Youth Games the Americans would excel in something like judo.
These are the Games at which nations that traditionally have done well in certain sports haven't (United States, swimming) and nations that typically are extras on the Olympic scene are suddenly starring (girls' soccer final Tuesday: Chile v. Equatorial Guinea, boys' soccer final Wednesday: Bolivia v. Haiti).
The two American medals here perhaps signal something big come London and the 2012 Games.
Katelyn, who is 16, last year became the youngest U.S. athlete ever to compete at the senior world championships; she first won her class at the U.S. nationals as a 14-year-old.
Her father, Serge, is her coach. In the finals, Katelyn fought Anna Dmitrieva, a Russian. "We talked about her killing the Russian's grip, killing her right hand, and then staying on the offense," the father said later.
Max is 17. Along with being a world-class junior judo player, he has become a big-time high school wrestler. Two years ago, as an incoming freshman at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, he approached the wrestling coach, whose name is Mark Medona. "And," as Max tells the story, "I said, hey, my name is Max. I won nationals in judo last year. And I would like to join the wrestling team.
"His first response was actually pretty funny," Max said. "He told me to take my cock-and-bull story to someone who believed it.
Then, Max said, coach Medona "went down and researched my name and found out what I said was true. And I kept coming back."
As a freshman, Max made it to the Illinois state high school finals. This past school year, as a sophomore, wrestling at 145 pounds, he enjoyed an undefeated season en route to the state championship.
That, though, was followed by shoulder surgery on April 12, just four months ago. Max didn't get cleared to play judo here until July.
In the final, Max faced Hyon Song-chol of North Korea; the two had never seen or fought each other before.
Serge, the American coach here who also coached the 2009 junior world team, said after Max's victory, "I'm fighting back tears, if that'll tell you anything."
Max said that "ever since I was a little kid" it had "been my dream to be the first to do it," to win an Olympic-event gold for the United States.
He said of his Youth Games gold, "This is as close as I've ever come to a real Olympic medal. On some levels it feels like it.
"On others, I know I still have a lot to overcome."
Not, though, at school. Nobody bullies Max Schneider. "No," he said. "Not anymore."