When Brad Bolen walked through the halls of Oak Park and River Forest High School as a freshman in 2003, he kept mostly to himself. Aside from a couple wrestling teammates, he was pretty much on his own.
“I was a pretty antisocial kid in high school, so the wrestling team was pretty much all I had for friends,” Bolen said.
He was never a big talker in high school. After graduating from OPRF, Bolen continued to avoid even a trace of braggadocio despite a stellar athletic career as an adult. Five judo national championship titles later, he’s still letting his actions speak louder than his words.
Bolen was a standout on the mat for the OPRF wrestling team when he was a Huskie from 2003-07. He was voted the Rookie of the Year for OPRF when he earned a spot in the IHSA state tournament as a freshman, and followed it with another trip downstate his junior year.
After his graduation, Bolen made his way to upstate New York to pursue his dreams on another mat. Maybe even one that he felt more comfortable on.
“I started doing judo off and on when I was about 8 or 9, but I didn’t fully commit myself until I was 11 or 12,” Bolen said.
When asked about his desire to pursue the unique sport of judo, he described himself as a good match for the sport.
“I was never really in to any other sports,” Bolen said. “I never liked playing ball sports or anything like that, but for some reason, as a kid, I really liked judo and the idea of throwing people.”
Bolen’s father, Emerson, saw his son’s talent on the judo mat. A former wrestler himself, Emerson thought his son could transition nicely into judo.
“I found out I could use [my judo skills] in wrestling, so that’s how I got into that,” Bolen said. “My dad wrestled in high school, so he pushed that idea on me.”
When Bolen made the move to New York, his judo career took off. The 28-year-old is as decorated as they come. Bowen has five national championships to his name, a Pan-American Games championship in 2010, and is a five-time member of the World Team.
While his athletic career blossomed, some things have had to take the passenger seat for a short while.
“I was doing a little bit of community college when I got to New York, but I was traveling way too much to commit to it,” Bolen said of his post-secondary education. “I’d be off in Europe for three weeks at a time sometimes, so it was just impossible to do that and school.”
The schedule of a world-class judoka is demanding, and Bolen has worked hard to meet those demands. The 73kg (156 pound) martial artist is still going strong in his late twenties, with his most recent triumph coming on April 29 at the U.S. National Championships in Salt Lake City. He has won the last four national championships and five out of the last six in his weight class.
He has also won the Liberty Bell Judo Classic in Philadelphia and took the silver in the New York Open Team Championships in 2017.
Bolen gravitated towards wrestling as a young kid, not knowing what his ceiling was in this sport. Now, Bolen and the rest of the judo world can proudly thank that gravity.