Friday, October 12, 2007

Picking Winners

Did you ever notice how many people remember things differently from how they really happened? It has been many years since I won the world championships, and you will hear people telling about how they "always knew I was going to win" because I stood up above all the other young brown belts, etc. etc. It's the same with Ronda, all those people saying they knew she was something special from day one. Those make really good stories. Too bad it wasn't anything like that.

I remembered this the other day when I got email from Dougie Tono, who was on the U.S. team for about ten years. He won the U.S. Open, Dutch Open and two silver medals in the Panamerican Games and a lot more. The reason I call him Dougie is that when we were kids, the 'real' judo players included two black belts named Doug, one was a heavyweight "Big Doug" and the other was a lightweight, called Doug, and because he and Tono were about the same weight, "Little Doug" didn't make any sense, so all there was left was "Dougie".

We were two high school kids who placed in the senior state championships, which qualified us to go compete in the senior nationals. There were practices on the weekends for everyone going to nationals and a lot of attention from the coaches lavished on those who were 'going to be great judo players'. Dougie and I were not in that group. In fact, the coaches weren't quite sure what to do with us. They would be working with this "name" player on his tai otoshi and that "top" player on his foot sweeps and we would come up and ask,

"What do you want us to do, sensei?"

Whoever we asked would usually absent-mindedly wave us toward the corner and say,

"Go over there and do randori."

So, we would. Sometimes they would forget about us and Dougie and I would go a forty-five minute round of randori. Mind you, this wasn't a round we knew up front was going to be 45 minutes long. We would start out thinking it would be a five-minute round and go all out. When no one told us to switch partners, we would think, "Okay, ten minutes" figuring sometimes senseis would have you fight a ten-minute round so you were prepared in case a match went into overtime. Half-an-hour would pass, then more time while the black belts were doing drills, changing partners, doing two rounds and then a round off, getting instruction from the coaches. Later, rather than sooner, someone would notice the two of us off in a corner and say to another coach,

"How long have they been fighting?"

Invariably, the other person would shrug and the first coach would yell,

"Hey, you two, you can stop now."

We would stand there a minute to catch our breath. (It is true what your coaches tell you, we did not have water breaks in those days, and if you brought a bottle of water to practice, people would laugh at you. Real judo players drank after practice and they drank beer. Except for me and Dougie, since we were way too young for beer. We just went home.)

What struck me when I got the email was the fact that all of those "top" judo players in our region are gone. Most of them never made it past the point they were back then. A couple went on to win senior nationals, and that was the last we saw of them. Between the two of us, Dougie and I won ten times as many gold medals as the rest of them put together.

Interesting fact: When the Nanka Shorai program started, it was for high school and older. Aaron Shiosaki and Ronda were both in the eighth grade. At practices when just the two of them showed up with a few brown belts, it was considered to be a real disappointment. In fact, we almost dropped the program. It was supposed to be for our senior black belts, just like that program Dougie and I were tangential to back in the 1970s. Funny thing, only six people who came to enough practices to get funded for high school/ collegiate nationals when Ronda was a freshman in high school. Three of them were Ronda Rousey (junior world gold medalist, world silver medalist), Aaron Shiosaki (junior world team member) and Asma Sharif (2007 world team member).

Here is what I have learned about picking winners over the long-term. Don't bet on who won the nationals last year. Pick the ones who come to every extra practice. Don't bet on the ones who need to be bribed, enticed and cajoled to come to practice. Pick the ones you can't keep out even when you tell them they're too young, too little and not advanced enough.


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