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Saunders gets a grip on Yukon’s first medal

Amber Saunders flipped her way to Yukon’s first medal of the Games on Wednesday in the judo competition.

Amber Saunders flipped her way to Yukon’s first medal of the Games on Wednesday in the judo competition.

She won bronze in a tough match against Saskatchewan’s Bishop Sommerfeld — her fourth fight of the day.

“I felt pretty confident going into it,” said Saunders, who couldn’t stop smiling after the win.

“I got a few pointers from other people, and I felt like I knew what to do.”

Saunders came out aggressively against her larger opponent, scoring a yuko (minor point) early on and dominating most of the time.

The hometown crowd packed the stands, hanging on every shuffle or grab, spectators shouting out “Saunders!” or “Go Yukon!” from the three levels of the Games Centre as if in a throwback to the glory days of the Roman coliseum.

“The crowd was right behind Amber, and she fed off that,” said Amber’s father Chris Saunders, a longtime judoka who introduced her to the sport.

“She was pretty psyched going out to the mat.”

With just over two minutes to go, Sommerfeld was trying to set up a throw from behind when Saunders countered and ended the match with a backwards throw of her own, for the ippon (full point).

After that, the crowd went wild and Saunders couldn’t contain her elation, as she jumped off the mat into the arms of brother Justin, who competed the day before.

“It’s awesome, I was in this position four years ago in Bathurst — going for bronze, and didn’t win it,” she said after the throng of TV cameras and reporters had cleared.

“I’m glad I won it here, with my friends and parents and brother here in Whitehorse, at the Canada Games!”

She expected Sommerfeld to be tough.

“I’m sure she wanted it just as much as I did, and I wanted it bad.”

Making the win even more impressive is the fact that Saunders moved up a weight class to 70-kilograms, to make room for another Yukon athlete in the 63-kilogram category.

“I’m pretty short, most of the girls I fight are taller and heavier,” said Saunders, who stands 5-4. “There are different moves you can use against a bigger person, I guess you could say that’s part of my style.”

Yukon had four other judo athletes in contention on Wednesday: Kyle Vibe, Montana and Delaney Prysnuk, and Gillian Farnell.

None of the other Yukoners managed to advance to the medal rounds, which was especially disappointing for seasoned veterans like Montana Prysnuk, who placed third at the junior nationals two years ago.

“I definitely could have done better,” Prysnuk said after her two-loss elimination.

“I was really nervous going in, which definitely psyched me out. I just didn’t work out.”

When you’re out there alone on the mat, it’s a mental game, added Prysnuk.

“As soon as you get butterflies, you’ve got to think of something else — getting nervous doesn’t help.”

Luck of the draw played a part as well, as Prysnuk faced the eventual gold and silver winners in her 78-kilogram division.

For the less experienced judokas, it’s more about growing as an athlete than having medals on their necks, said coach Penny Prysnuk.

“We just want them to make a gain in some way, whether it’s lasting a minute or three minutes or making a score — the gains are personal and it’s not always the win,” she said.

“Some of them are young competitors, Kyle has only been in judo for one year  — versus people who been in it for 10 years. He’s moved a long way in a short time.”

“Delaney’s only 15, she did well — she went four minutes against one of the girls that’s going for gold — so that’s very good,” added Prysnuk.

Judo wraps up today with the men’s and women’s team competitions.