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Finegan named Athlete of the Year by USOC

If there was any tension at all, it wasn’t noticeable. Twenty-year-old Billy Finegan sat calm, cool and collected less than two weeks away from embarking on a trip halfway around the globe to compete in one of the toughest karate tournaments in the world.

On Aug. 15, the Little Neck resident, along with coach Tokey Hill, will travel to Akia, Japan to compete in the World Games, just a month after nearly sweeping the United States karate national championships, winning four gold medals and a silver at the tournament held in Houston in mid-July.

For his efforts, Finegan was named Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee in karate and the right to compete in two more international competitions in the following months — the Junior World Championships in Greece in September and the Junior PUKO championships in Trinidad in October.

Despite all these accomplishments and pending battles, Finegan seemed more impressed with the chicken teriyaki on his plate before him.

“It’s pretty exciting, but it gets stressful at times,” said Finegan, who juggles his college education, work, training, competing and the social life of a 20-year-old on a daily basis.

Hill, 44, is no stranger to Finegan’s predicament. The former karate world champion and father of two runs his Port Washington, L.I. dojo, coaches the American team and occasionally squeezes in time for a little one-on-one training with his prize pupil. And like Finegan, Hill was also at the top of the sport.

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Hill was the dominant American in the sport, becoming the first to win the World Union of Karate-Do Organization’s world championship. He sympathizes with his student, but also points out that such struggles are necessary.

“He’s got a lot of pressure, not only financially, but his education. It’s important he keeps up with his academics,” Hill said. “His career, as far as the martial arts go, it’s not a problem. It’s black and white. Every time he goes out he medals.

“As his coach, of course, I want him to win every time,” Hill added. “We’re always looking to win it, but winning ain’t everything. It’s about building a solid foundation for the future.”

Case in point, the U.S. nationals. Finegan swept through the 18- to 20-year-old Cadet Division, captured the men’s Open Division, garnered gold in the Junior PUKO trials and led New York state to the gold medal in the team competition. His only setback was claiming a silver in the -80 kilo Division.

“He must have fought between 15 and 20 times in two days,” Hill said. “It’s crazy. That’s insane. He fought really well. Though it would have been nice if he had won five gold medals.”

Such a breakneck pace of fights can only serve Finegan well for his upcoming trip to Japan, where he will compete in three separate tournaments, including the World Games. Finegan will also fight in the Kineshi Cup, a traditional Japanese event, and an inner-dojo competition that is more on the informal side.

“The primary reason we’re going is for the world games,” Hill said. “To represent your country on a world level is a great honor and to be fortunate enough to medal or win is huge. I know — I’ve been there.”

Finegan is looking forward to the challenger.

“It’s a really big competition, it’s right up there with the world championships,” he said. “I’m hoping to do really well. That will really put me on top as one of the best.”

To make matters more difficult for Finegan, he caught his thumb in a door and ripped off the nail shortly after returning from his triumphant run at nationals. The injury, though not major, has kept him from sparring.

Also, the injury has prevented Finegan from going to training camp with Hill and the rest of the U.S. team. But despite these setbacks, Finegan seems unfazed.

“Physically I’m in shape,” he said. “I’ve been in constant training. Little injuries sometimes prevent me from doing my technical training. I can’t make any contact and it’s really annoying. But I’ve been training all year.”

Part of that training included winning the 178-Novice Division at the most recent New York Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament. Finegan said he plans on going for the Open title next year, when his long itinerary of karate tournaments eases up a bit.

But that is a ways off. First and foremost is Japan.

“The maturity of the guys in Japan — they just fight more frequently,” said Hill, who more than had his share of successful trips to the Orient during his fighting days. “Even though Billy’s a lot younger and theoretically less experienced, I still think he has a chance to medal. I’m really happy with him.”

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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