These days my time available for judo is very limited. I coach a wonderful group of young people at Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles and that is all the time I can spare away from running a company that just got voted one of the top 50 startups in the US. However, there are some people that you can't say "no" to and Hayward is one of them.
So he called me and asked,
"What are you doing on October 2?"
I responded I guess whatever he's about to tell me. As you probably know, I am America's oldest living world judo champion. I don't want to talk about that today, though, except to say that if you personally ever have the opportunity to stand on the podium and be the undisputed best on the planet at something you should do it because it is unimaginably cool. It is even better than sex, but you have sex a lot more times so that's got something to recommend, too.
Now that I'm old and able to reflect back on life and have 4 wonderful children all grown to adulthood I've given some thought to whether it was all worth it. What did I get out of 46 years and counting in judo? 46 years! That's pretty incredible. Amazing I'm not dead.
There have been times when I wondered if it was a waste of time. I have a doctorate, published scientific articles, founded companies and there are the 4 aforementioned children. One might think that judo has been a distraction from what ought to be bigger priorities – certainly our investors sometimes think so and ask me what I'm doing at a judo clinic in Wyoming or Louisiana instead of making money for them. Certainly my professors when I was in college wondered why the heck I was gone every weekend at a judo tournament and sometimes even missed class for something as frivolous – to them – as the collegiate national judo championships.
(Hint: You can calm our investors by buying or donating our games here.)
I'm going to ignore Hayward's advice to pick one idea and just ramble on the way I think best. It's what we do in our podcast every week and it seems to work for thousands of people. My point – and I do have one – is what exactly did I get out of almost 1/2 century in this sport?
I started judo because I was a short, fat little girl. My brothers' nickname for me was 'Stumpy', because I was built like a little tree stump. My mother told me I could not spend my entire life sitting in my room eating and reading. Did I mention I also had super thick glasses? So one year, she managed to get together the money for a family membership to the YMCA. She drove me there push me out of the car and said "go join something".
Then she drove away.
You may not remember before title IX. Back then it was perfectly legal to say, "we don't allow girls in this sport or club". My choices were limited. I could run track, which if you're a short fat little girl is not a great option. I could've joined the swim team, but that was expensive and besides, if you're a fat girl, you don't really want to put on swimsuit. Judo was free if you had a Y membership. They also allowed girls. Isn't that weird? That they "allowed" girls. The instructor had a sister who had wanted to do judo and so he allowed other girls so she would have someone to train with. By the time I came along, she was a black belt. So, I was probably one of the few women in this country who was taught by female black belt early on.
If I told you the name of any of my early instructors you wouldn't know a one. That's a pretty important point. My mother had very little extra money. I took judo for several months before I had a judo uniform. I remember that it costs $12 and there were 3 of us, me, my brother and my sister who all took judo. My mom insisted that we stick at it a few months before she put in the money to buy each of us a uniform to make sure we were serious because that was a lot of money to her. I got my first uniform shortly before my first tournament. I walked there, fought, won and walked home. I was 12. After I had been in judo a year, we could not afford another Y membership. That's when the instructor stepped in and said the YMCA would offer me a membership if I would be an assistant instructor – I was 13 years old. He knew that my mother would never accept charity.
For the next several years, I took judo lessons at the Y. I absolutely loved judo from the very beginning. My brother did, too. We had a garage behind our house, too run down with boards falling down to park a car safely in. There was a lot of random stuff thrown in there including an old mattress. My brother and I spent a lot of time throwing each other on that mattress in the garage. We both made brown belt and then my brother discovered girls and decided they were a lot more interesting than judo.
People always laugh when I say that if it wasn't for judo I would be in prison right now but it is the God's truth. When many of my friends were doing drugs or knocking over liquor stores, I was at judo practice. It was not that I was a better person, I was just in the right place at the right time.
Because of judo, I met people like my first instructor – his name was Bill Shelton, in case you are wondering, a guy who had gone off to Japan in the Air Force, got his black belt, and come back to a small town where he had grown up to teach judo. I know at least 2 other judo clubs in this country, one in Missouri and one in Illinois, run by people that he taught. 3 of the people from the club had children who were nationally ranked players.
Because of judo, I met people like Bruce Toups who not only funded a lot of my trips when I was young – because my mom could have sent me to Europe about as easily as she could send me to the moon – but who was also a really important mentor to me after I retired from competition and started one business after another. I met people like Frank Fullerton who has always stood out in my mind is the standard of integrity I wanted to meet. With Bruce, he funded a lot of my travel overseas just because he wanted to see that American flag go up when they gave out the gold medals. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was flying back from Athens and happened to be on the same plane as Frank who turned to me and said "I'm glad you turned out to be worth all the trouble."
When I think back on it, yes, it was worth it. Perhaps, not for the reasons that you might think don't get me wrong – winning is awesome – I highly recommend it.
When I add it all up, what I gained from judo was from the good people that I met. Not all of them are good – some of them were pretty damn awful – but the good ones made up for them. Most of all, were the good ones who were around when I was young and helpless and needed them. Now that I've been somewhat successful and my lovely daughter Ronda has been successful as well, there are a lot of people who want to be my new best friend. The people I will never ever forget are those who when I was 13 or 14 years old and had nothing - and I was not a promising or rewarding child, believe me – who nonetheless provided me with instruction, guidance, discipline and role models and changed the trajectory of my entire life. I will never forget them. Just in case you wonder what I was doing at a kata camp this summer – it was because Eiko Shepard was one of those people.
That's the reason that I focus the limited time I have for judo working with young people in South Los Angeles. It's great to win a world championships but even greater to change somebody's life.
And that's all I know about judo.
PS – I had my thumb replaced a few weeks ago, which is my 2nd joint replacement. A few more and I will rival the tin man. I already set off security every time I go through an airport. Anyway, I had to write this whole thing using voice to text software. So please excuse any typos. I head out to South Dakota tomorrow but I will be back by Wednesday and show up wherever the hell this thing is this weekend.