Junior World Judo Championships in Fort Lauderdale this week

Team U.S.A. poses before the 2014 Junior World Judo Championships
Team U.S.A. poses before the 2014 Junior World Judo Championships Copyright USA Judo

South Florida Judo fans who want a preview of the 2016 and 2020 Olympics don’t have to go far.

More than 550 of the top young judokas in the world will be competing in the 2014 Junior World Judo Championships this week at the Fort Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center. The event runs from Wednesday through Sunday.

Athletes aged 21 and under from 75 countries are entered, and the U.S. roster includes four South Floridians: Adoniz Diaz of Hialeah and Gabriela Prado of Coral Springs, both of whom train in Coconut Creek at the Ki-Itsu-Sai Traning Center; and Lauren Baez and Brian Abreu of Miami, who train at the Budokan Judo Club in Hialeah.

Diaz (60 kg) is 18 years old and ranked No. 1 among juniors in the United States and No. 9 in the world. He finished seventh at the recent Youth Olympics in China. He is trained by local legend Jhonny Prado, a Peruvian-American tile and marble distributor who started his judo club in a 300-square-foot North Miami garage with German Velazco, a member of Peru’s 2000 Olympic team.

Prado and Velazco quickly gained respect within U.S. judo coaching circles, so when they opened their facility in Coconut Creek, it was designated by USA Judo as one of four official national training centers. The others are in San Jose, California; Boston, and Colorado Springs.

Prado’s love for the sport rubbed off on his 15-year-old niece, Gabriela, who is the youngest member of the U.S. team and will likely be the youngest competitor at the junior world championships. She began training at 4 years old with her uncle and father, Julian, also an accomplished judo player. The Parkland Douglas High 10th grader has never lost a fight in her age or weight division at a national tournament.

“Gabriela is very young, but has great potential, and this will be the first time she competes in an event of this level,’’ Jhonny Prado said. “Adoniz is definitely someone to watch. He has won fights at international competitions and could do very well here.’’

Mike Swain, a four-time Olympian and former head coach of the U.S. team, said the current U.S. junior team is “one of the strongest ever.’’ Swain said Diaz is a top American hope, as is L.A. Smith (100 kg) of San Jose, whom Swain helps coach.

Others to watch include 17-year-old Mackenzie Williams (+100 kg) of Seabrook, Texas, who has won gold medals at Infantile and Cadet Pan American Championships; and Thomas Capra (90 kg) who is ranked No. 4 in the world.

“This tournament is truly a world championship, and one of the biggest judo events ever hosted in the United States,’’ said Swain, who is also a spokesman for Dollamur Sports Surfaces, the event’s official flooring provider.

U.S. coach Jim Hrbek added: “We have an ambitious hard-working group of young athletes. … There is a history of Junior World medalists ultimately making it to the Olympics.’’

Swain was planning to watch his 20-year-old daughter, Sophia, compete, but she tore her ACL in Canada last month.

Competition begins Wednesday with the men’s 55kg and 60 kg and women’s 44 kg and 48 kg divisions. Thursday’s schedule features the men’s 66 kg and 73 kg and women’s 53 kg and 57 kg. The bigger athletes take the stage Friday — men’s 81 kg and 90 kg and women’s 63 kg and 70 kg. On Saturday, the men compete in 100kg and 100-plus kg, and the women compete in 78 kg and 78-plus kg divisions. A team competition will be held on Sunday.

On Friday night, three South Florida judo teachers and two Olympians will be honored at the “Night of Champions’’ banquet. The honorees are: Professor Luis Guardia, Professor Jack Williams, Professor Hector Estevez (Pan American Games gold and silver medalist, international referee), Orlando Fuentes (former U.S. champion, 2000 Olympics), and the late-Rene Capo (former U.S. champion, two-time Olympian in 1988 and 1996).

Tournament tickets are $5 for morning session, $10 for afternoon session, $25 for a week pass. Competition begins at 10 a.m. daily and runs through the evening.