Hard-working, motivated Island youth notches national judo championship

Zulaev and his family moved to the US from southern Russia.

About three months after moving with his family to the United States from southern Russia, Mikhail Zulaev began paving a path of discipline and diligence in the sport of judo.

Another five months down the line and the 7-year-old Mercer Island resident proudly stood atop the awards podium as a youth national champion.

Zulaev, a first-grader at Northwood Elementary School, notched a gold medal and a pair of bronzes at the 2022 USA Judo Youth National Championships from March 19-20 in Lansing, Michigan. He topped the under-55-pound Bantam 3 Male division and finished third in the under-57-pound Bantam 4 Male and under-59-pound Novice Bantam 2 Male divisions.

The young martial arts athlete said it was a tough task to achieve the medals and credits the support of his family and those involved with the Seiei Dojo judo club in Bellevue for helping guide him to success.

“It is a great experience for me and now I have a dream to become an Olympic champion and world champion, too,” he said in an email sent to the Reporter by his mother, Maria Chupova. “I’m very happy to be the champion, and now I understand that there is a hard struggle of mind and body behind any victory. That in order to win, I have to work hard to reach the goal.”

Zulaev previously engaged in jiu jitsu and gymnastics in Russia, where his family resided in Kalmykia before immigrating to the United States and eventually moving to Mercer Island.

“We are working here and hope to stay here,” Chupova said. “We came here for jobs and it’s because of the political situation in Russia, so we just decided to change the place of living. You know the situation in Russia, so that’s why.”

The family is of western Mongolian ancestry and also includes husband Vladimir and four children aged 19, 15, 7 and 1 1/2.

“We love Mercer Island and we’re happy that we chose this place to live,” said Chupova, who praised the local school district. “(It’s a) very good neighborhood and environment for kids to live and grow.”

Chupova said that Zulaev has made great strides in both his athletic and English-speaking skills since arriving in the United States.

On the judo front, she said they didn’t expect their son to reap such massive success at the national championships. They just figured he’d give it a try since he was a relative newcomer to the sport. Now the judo champ has more tournaments on the horizon.

“He’s a hard worker and he’s very motivated. In spite of any pain, he’s very tough. When we talk with him, we always tell him that he needs to fight ‘til the end with all his power,” Chupova said.

Vladimir, a former wrestler, got his son into martial arts and attended the national championships. Chupova said the entire family is inspired by Zulaev’s gold-medal performance, but especially Vladimir.

“For his father, it’s a big victory for him,” said Chupova, adding that father and son practice judo skills together at home and Vladimir has always believed in his boy.

Zulaev has thrived under the tutelage of Sensei Nyamochir Sainjargal at the Seiei Dojo. The Mongolian native, who won a bronze judo medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, said that his pupil is well-focused and confident and they will be trying to succeed in the future by training hard together.

A notice emblazoned on the dojo website reads, in part, “We are committed to the physical and mental advancement of our members.”