From the water to the sumo ring for Liz Seward

There is really no easy way to connect the dots linking the two sports Liz Seward has chosen to pursue in her life.

And the sports couldn't be more different.

When Seward, 25, graduated from Burroughs High in 2006, she was a decorated water polo player, earning first-team All-Area and all-league accolades. But after graduating from UC Irvine, she has decided to go in a completely different direction. Instead of using her talents in the pool, Seward now competes internationally in the martial art of sumo.

For nearly two weeks, Seward has been in Cali, Colombia, competing for the United States in the 2013 World Games. In the sumo competition, she took part in the women's middleweight event as well as the open division.

"My experience in water polo has definitely helped me with sumo wrestling," said Seward, who earned All-Almont League honors as a senior, scoring 38 goals. "I used to play set in polo, which is basically wrestling underwater. Also, both sports require strength, intensity, and are high impact."

Sumo is a competitive, full-contact wrestling sport where an athlete attempts to force another out of a circular ring (dohyo) or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. The sport originated in Japan, the only country where it is practiced professionally.

It wasn't like Seward sought out to be a sumo wrestler. On the contrary, it was by accident that the former Indian player ended up competing in the sport.

After college graduation, Seward taught English abroad in Japan. When she returned to the United States 12 months ago she attended an alumni function where she took part in a "let's learn sumo" event.

"I enjoyed it so much I asked if I could attend their practices on a regular basis," Seward said. "As it would turn out, the USA women's sumo team still needed members to attend the World Games in Colombia this July, and they asked me to join."

Once acclimated to the sport, Seward said she was hooked.

"I love the intensity of sumo," She said. "When you step into the dohyo and face your opponent, you have to have a lion heart. The matches happen so quickly that there's barely time to think, you just have to feel the balance and strength of the other person.

"Some say sumo is the 'martial art with heart,' and for me each match feels like a heart-to-heart dialogue with my opponent."

So, with limited training and experience compared to the majority of the other competitors, Seward entered the World Games competition with wide-eyed wonderment.

Seward enjoyed surprising early success in the first round of the middleweight competition at the Mariano Ramos Coliseum, earning a win in her opening bout against Helga Schmidtsdorf of Germany. However, she then suffered losses to Maryna Maksymenko of the Ukraine — who went on to win the silver medal — and Japan's Asano Matsuura — who was the bronze medalist.

In the open division, Seward lost her only bout to Anna Aleksandrova of Russia, who took home the bronze.

"My most memorable moment was definitely my win against the competitor from Germany," Seward said. "The World Games was not only my first competition in sumo ever, but also the most competitive that I could have joined. The girls I lost to on the first day ended up wining the bronze and silver medals.

"Some countries train year-round and sumo wrestling is their job. To have started in February and win a match, I'm over the moon. And I'm the first USA woman to win a match in the World Games."

Seward added that being able to represent the U.S. in an international competition was touching.

"It still feels like a dream that I actually represented the USA," she said. "I'd look down at the USA sign on my mawashi (the sumo belt) or see the USA flags in the crowds and be humbled. It was a very special experience and I hope it's not the last.

"Being a part of the World Games was surreal…Sumo was one of the most popular events since no one is Colombia has ever seen it before, and they were the first tickets to sell out. The atmosphere during our matches was unbeatable."

Seward, who is working on her master's degree in speech and language pathology, said she would like to compete in the USA National Championships and hopefully in the Sumo World Championships in Taiwan next year. She currently trains in Van Nuys with instructor Andrew Freund.

The World games began July 25 and will conclude Sunday. The competition involved more than 4,500 athletes from 107 countries who took part in 31 sports.

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