In 2021, after nearly 30 years practicing Judo, Nina Cutro-Kelly began preparing for a stem cell transplant in her right elbow after not qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by a single slot.  


Qualifying to compete at the Olympics in the sport of Judo is a process that begins two years before any Games and the structure is simple: Win medals at qualifying events to improve your world ranking. Make it to the top 18 in the world in your weight class before qualifying ends and you get an official invitation. 


Although Judo is not a top-of-mind sport in the United States, in the rest of the world it is the exact opposite. In Rio 2016, 137 National Olympic Committees sent Judo delegations to the Games. To miss qualifying by the narrowest of margins is nothing short of heartbreaking when the contention for slots is so competitive. 


Not long before Team USA was set to depart for Tokyo, Nina received the news that a spot had opened which moved her into qualification range.  


“Three days before they called me to tell me I qualified, I had stem cells put into my elbow due to ongoing wear and tear on my tendon, so I was on the couch icing my arm and I was in a really painful phase,” Nina remembered. “But by the next week, I was on the mat for almost 5 hours a day until we left for Tokyo.”

Nina Cutro Kelly, Olympic Rings Tattoo


At the age of 36, she became the oldest American Judoka (Japanese for ‘a person who practices judo’) ever to make an Olympic team. But true to her self-proclaimed tendency for stubbornness, Nina saw the short lead time to prepare as just another challenge she had to overcome.


While Nina has lived with hearing loss her entire life and wears a hearing aid in both ears, she also grapples with ADHD, something that drove her parents to put her in Judo at the age of 7. 


"I was born with 50% hearing loss in both ears. It's what they call sensory neural hearing loss, which means I am missing some of the nerves that conduct sound at certain frequencies,” Nina explained. “There's some frequencies I can hear as normal and there's some frequencies, I can't hear at all.”


But it never stopped her from competing at the highest level. “People often say to me, ‘It must be hard’ but I don't know what it's like to do it any other way. I had to adapt to it, and I don't know any other reality,” Nina said.


That reality drove her to another first when she competed at the Deaflympics this year, a global competition solely for the hearing impaired. Her performance earned her the title of Deaflympics Champion and stamped her name in the history books as the first American to ever do so.  

Youth playing water polo at PlayLA


While working to achieve these career-defining firsts on the Judo mat, Nina became an Olympian of sorts in her academic and professional pursuits as well.


“It’s important to not just focus on your sport. I cared about my career because I knew making a living with just Judo would be really hard,” she said. 


If her unwillingness to give up is admirable then her professional resume is downright impressive: Double Bachelor’s in both Political Science and French, Master’s in Teaching and Applied Linguistics, ESL Teacher fluent in French, Class of 2022 MBA Candidate, and now Olympic Fellow. 


Nina has taken the next step in her career, moving 1,500 miles from her home in San Antonio, Texas to chase the sun to the City of Angels where she has joined the legal team at LA28.


The Fellowship is a one-year program with six-month rotations through two different departments of the 2028 Olympic & Paralympic Organizing Committee. Bringing athletes into departments across the organization is contributing to LA28’s promise of delivering an athlete-centered Games.


“It feels good to know your contribution matters,” Nina said. “Everyone at LA28 is united in the mission to host another historical Games in LA and they value athlete input in every element of planning and that is pretty cool.”⁠ 


Nina Cutro Kelly, Olympian and Janet Evans, Chief Athlete Officer at LA28


Nina possesses the inherent competitive edge recognizable in high-performance athletes; the drive to win at all things at all times.


“I won the game of college. Then you apply for the job, you do well, and then you win the game of the job,” she explained. “With Judo you can’t ever truly win at it, no matter the titles or successes. It’s like a language, you can never completely learn a language. Judo forces you to keep learning all the time.”  


With her fighting career mostly behind her, Nina is finding joy in her new pursuits at LA28. “I think the Fellow Program is a great opportunity to give athletes insight into the other side of what goes into making these huge multi-sport events that we’ve participated in,” Nina said. “On the athletes’ side, we see the finished product, but we don't necessarily see the organization that's behind creating all these opportunities and processes. It's been interesting to see the other side.”


To watch the interview with Nina, please visit the LA28 YouTube Channel.