Kaci-Lee Ver Sluis, 12, at her Sabattus home on Wednesday. Ver Sluis is competing in the Judo Junior Olympics in Spokane and then traveling to Japan for training. (Andy Molloy/Kennebeck Journal)

The training camp wasn’t going well. Kaci-Lee Ver Sluis, a Sabattus girl with a passion for judo, had made the trip down to New Jersey for sessions with three-time Olympian Celita Schutz to see how she measured up.

And the results weren’t good.

“It was a ‘wow’ moment for her,” Ver Sluis’s mother, Kate, said. “She could not keep up with the kids her own age. One of the nights, (Schutz) said, ‘You’ve got to go home and put her to bed. She’s too tired to be here.’”

Ver Sluis went back to Maine. She worked harder and trained longer. And when she went back to New Jersey, Schutz had a different reaction.

“She was just so much better and so much more improved,” Kate Ver Sluis said. “(Schutz) said, ‘Have you considered going to national events?’ And Kaci started going to national events after that.”

Three years later and several of those national tournaments later, Ver Sluis is taking her biggest step forward yet. Fresh off of winning a gold medal in the East Coast Judo Championship in Staten Island, the 12-year-old will be competing this weekend in the Judo Junior Olympics in Spokane, Washington, and then heading immediately to Japan for a 13-day training period at the birthplace of the sport.

“I’m really excited. Japan is where judo originated, so it’s always been one of my dreams to go there,” Ver Sluis said. “I think it’s mixed emotions. I’m nervous, I’m excited, I’m scared at the same time. Everything kind of piles on top of you, it’s kind of nerve-wracking.”

It’s the latest development in a bright career that has been on the rise the past three years. Ver Sluis, a member of Schutz’s New Jersey-based Kokushikia Judo Travel Team, has constantly been on the move, competing in national and international tournaments that have taken her to states including Rhode Island, Texas, Washington and Florida, and beyond to countries like the Bahamas, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

“It’s so fun,” said Ver Sluis, who has 10 international medals and won bronze at the 2016 Junior Olympics. “I really love it. I love the traveling and I love being able to do all the tournaments. … Going to a lot of tournaments, eventually it just becomes easier.”

Now Ver Sluis’s sensei, Schutz — a competitor at the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics — has been able to see her pupil’s steady progression in the two to three times a year the two meet.

“With her heart and dedication, with the improvement I’ve seen in her recently, she can go as far as she wants to,” Schutz said.

The load hasn’t been easy, but Ver Sluis and her family have made it work. A normal school schedule isn’t feasible considering the travel demands, so she takes classes via the Maine Virtual Academy, which allows her to watch lectures online and do schoolwork while she’s on the road. The Academy also allows her to either catch up on work or do it ahead of time when a tournament is going to take up the entire day.

“Maine Virtual Academy has just bent over backwards for her schedule,” Kate Ver Sluis said. “It’s been awesome. … We can do work on the airplane on the flight out there. When we were in Peru she was able to get online and able to do her work. It’s great because she’s not missing days.”

Another challenge popped up this year. Ver Sluis was at a tournament in March when she landed awkwardly and hurt the soft tissue in her knee. Four weeks in an immobilizer and eight weeks of rehab and physical therapy followed, and Ver Sluis only got into one competition before heading to Staten Island.

“I was really scared,” she said. “I was afraid that my technique wouldn’t be as it was before.”

The concerns were quickly eased. Ver Sluis won all four of her matches for the gold medal, and her comfort is back for the Junior Olympics.

“The Judo Junior Olympics are really big for what I’ve done,” she said. “I want to work my hardest and do my best with my techniques and my holds and everything. (I’m) kind of getting back into it.”

The jewel of this stretch, however, is the trip to Japan, which was set up by sensei Shinjiro Sasaki after Ver Sluis made a trip to see him in Rhode Island. The training trip is for 15-year-olds, but Sasaki quickly saw the need for an exception.

“(He) said ‘No, she’s going. If you can make it, she’s going,’” Ver Sluis said.

Ver Sluis’s family deliberated before realizing it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“She’s been begging me for years to go,” Kate Ver Sluis said. “Everybody who’s serious about judo in the United States wants to go to Japan to train because they have the best training in the world.”

That’s the training that Ver Sluis is so eager to receive. With Sasaki supervising, Ver Sluis said she’s looking forward to being taught the art by the people who know it best.

“Anything I can scratch up from the bottom is what I’m trying to get,” she said. “I’m trying to get all the knowledge, everything. I’m going to take it all in, so every little thing that they tell me to do with my foot and turning my body.”

She’ll have plenty of chances to learn, with seven training and practice sessions at five to six different dojos. Schutz said the trip will be an ideal learning experience.

“It’ll really broaden her experience, to be able to train with players from another country,” she said. “She’ll definitely come back with a lot of questions and benchmarks on how to improve. I think it’ll be a challenging and beneficial trip for her, and I’m so glad she’s able to go.”

Ver Sluis feels the same way. She hopes to be an Olympian like Schutz in the years to come, and she knows this is a step in the right direction.

“Being able to go to Japan, it’s going to help me in the future,” she said. “It’s crazy that I’m a 12-year-old and I’m going to Japan to train with everybody. … It should help me a lot with my dreams.”

Kaci-Lee Ver Sluis, 12, at her Sabattus home on Wednesday. Ver Sluis is competing in the Judo Junior Olympics in Spokane and then traveling to Japan for training. (Andy Molloy/Kennebeck Journal)

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