That is a question I have often asked myself over the years, usually when I was training for competition. I might look over at a teammate and ask, “Why do I do this again?” The question was a joke (almost always) aimed at taking our minds off the pain during a particularly hard practice. My wife and I often ask each other that question after an injury or right before going into surgery to repair the odd shoulder or knee, etc. The short and easy answer is, because it is AWESOME, and we love it, but the true answer is much more complicated. I’m sure that like me, most people have a quick answer they may give but if they really thing about it, they too have a much deeper reason for doing judo, or whatever they do, that is so rewarding that despite numerous setbacks and disappointments and even injuries, they do it and cannot imagine not doing it.
I originally wanted to get into sports because my older brother played several sports and was really good at all of them. Being visually impaired did not mean I could not play the mainstream sports he played like football (American football for my friends overseas), and even basketball, although it would make them difficult, but by the time I was old enough to get into school sports, I was at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, so I was limited to the sports they offered. So in the 3rd grade I decided I would try wrestling which I did almost every year after that, but I was too small/young to compete until 8th grade. Our school wasn’t big enough to have a JV team so I wrestled varsity from 8th grade through high school. I also did track and field in the spring but I mostly did that to stay in shape after wrestling.
Wrestling, of course lead me to judo. By a lucky chance a teammate who was a year ahead of me went to the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette) and took a judo class. He called and told me he thought I would like it, so I went out for a weekend to check it out and came home and told my mother I was going to USL. She asked why, since I had planned on going to LSU. I told her “they have a judo club,” to which she replied, “what is judo?” I replied, “I don’t know but it looks really cool!” So in the fall of 1988 I went to USL for college and the first class I registered for was beginning judo. I fell in love with judo right away but I had no idea where it would take me and that I would still be doing it 26 years later and coaching my own club with my wife, who I met at the US Open 2 months after moving to Colorado to train for the 2000 Paralympic Games.
I have had so many incredible experiences through my participation in judo, first and foremost, as I just said, I met my wife at the US Open in 1998 right after I moved to Colorado to train for the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, and we have been coaching at our own club (Denver Judo) together ever since. In 2000, I won my second of three Paralympic medals, but this one was Gold, making me the first American to win a Gold medal in judo in either the Olympic or Paralympic Games. My teammate won Gold the next day and we were the only 2 for the US until Kayla Harrison won Gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. I have many other moments I am proud of in judo – in 1998 I won the IBSA World Champions in my second of 6 World teams, and after retiring from competition I was the assistant coach for the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and the head coach for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. I am very proud to have the opportunity to give back to my sport and to honor the many people who have given so much for my success.
I didn’t tell you about my accomplishments to illustrate how great I think I am. If you have read my past articles you will know that I do not think I am great. I have been very fortunate but my success is due to many factors, one being some level of athletic ability and aptitude for judo, but even more so, hard work, desire, the will to win, great training partners and coaches, not necessarily in that order. I told you about them to show the upside. I, of course, have had several pitfalls along the way. I separated the A/C joint in my shoulder the first of many times in high school wrestling. Since then I have separated them both several times, so much so that my body started laying down extra calcium to stabilize the joints. I had to have extra bone shaved off each shoulder several years ago. The month before my first worlds, I ruptured the bursa in my knee. I went to the trials anyway and while I was there, after having it drained three times, I had to have surgery because it got infected. I have had several ankle sprains, injured wrists and elbows, strained LCLs and MCLs on both knees, a concussion or 2, and I have broken pretty much all my fingers and toes. This was while I was still competing. Since retiring, I had surgery to repair my rotator cuff then a year and a half later I had to have my biceps tendon cut and reattached on the same arm. I had a cortisone shot in my other shoulder last week, which seems to have also helped the tennis elbow on the other arm.
There are plenty of people with better upsides and worse downsides as well, but this is my article so I am giving you my highs and lows. As I said, my wife and other teammates and I have asked jokingly over the years, “Why do we do this again?” My mother has asked me that question many times over the years. When I won in Sydney she was so disappointed when she found out I was not going to retire. I used to think she hated me doing judo, but then I found out she loved judo because it meant so much to me but she hated my getting hurt. She was really bothered by my most recent surgeries. She always says, “Retired people are not supposed to get hurt!” But even through all the lows, I only ever considered quitting judo once, but my Sensei wouldn’t let me quit and I am so thanking to her for that.
So now I’ll tell you some of the reasons quitting has never seriously entered my mind and why, even when I have been injured and cannot practice or even get on the mat, I always go to the dojo anyway. Because I love it! There you go, that’s why. Now if you want to know why I love it so much that I would never consider quitting, that is a little more complicated.
I started judo because I loved wrestling and loved competing. I got into judo because it was similar to wrestling and while rank wasn’t really important to me I did think it might be cool if I stuck with it long enough to get my black belt some day. My Sensei, Connie Lavergne, had been an elite competitor so she taught us to be competitors. But she is also an educator so it was important to her that we not only learned to fight but that we learned the techniques and vocabulary as well as the philosophy and principles of judo. She taught us to respect ourselves and others. Being in a college club, we always had new people coming in and others leaving but we had a core group of people in our club that trained and traveled together, so we became close, more like a family than just a group of friends.
That is one of the things about Denver Judo that I am most proud of. We all train very hard, but Heidi and I think of the club as our extended family. It’s this sense of community that makes judo so special. It’s like a dysfunctional family, we all care for one another but we fight like crazy. In 1999, when my mentor, coach, and friend Larry Lee stepped down from the Paralympic program, we were fortunate to have Willy Cahill step in as the new coach. After the Sydney Games, Heidi and I considered moving to San Francisco to train full-time with Willy, just as I had moved to Colorado to train with Larry. We also considered moving to Colorado Springs to train full-time at the Olympic Training Center rather than just going once or twice a week. Either move would have allowed us to focus 100% on training rather than trying to train while coaching. The only thing that kept us in Denver was our club. We just could not fathom the idea of walking away from our club and all our students/friends, our judo family!
Another thing I love about judo is it truly can be a lifetime sport. This August it will be 26 years for me and I plan to be doing it at some level for the rest of my life. And I am so lucky that I share my passion with my wife. I never had to worry about my wife being upset because I had to spend so many hours in the dojo or the gym or away on a trip because she was usually right there with me. I’ve known many people who could not train as much as they would like because their spouse or significant other didn’t want them in the dojo so much. It’s understandable that they want you to spend time with them rather than spending all your spare time in the dojo, but I never had to worry about that. My wife and I share judo, and I don’t have to rush home from practice so she can go play some other sport or do some other activity. We go to judo together. Plus, we don’t fight at home; we work it out at the dojo!
Judo is such a great community too. Don’t get me wrong, we have nimrods just like any other sport or group/organization, but the majority of the people I have met in judo feel the same way I do. They think of judo as more of a lifestyle than a sport or just an activity. I have been fortunate to visit a few clubs around the country and the world over the years and everyone is always so welcoming, just before they try to throw you to the floor and choke you out. I have so many friends from all over the world though judo. As a matter of fact, while they don’t all come from judo, probably 95% of the people I consider my friends, I know because of judo.
Ok I’ve given you some of the big reasons I love judo, now I’ll give you one a little more personal to me. As I said at the beginning of this article, I am visually impaired, but what I did not say is that I have albinism. My hair isn’t gray, it’s white or actually clear but looks white all together and it has been all my life. What this means is that as a kid, I got picked on a lot. All kids get picked on to some degree, but being a kid and looking so different and being picked on for being different, even by my friends at times, or having them laugh when others did, was tough. I, of course, have developed a thick skin but one of the things that allowed me to do that was sport. Wrestling along with an awesome and supportive mother helped me through the tough times but even with sports I have always struggled with self-esteem issues, as many kids do. I have always felt different and always felt insecure around people I didn’t know and sometimes still do. I know most people go through this especially when it comes to the opposite sex but I always assumed women were not interested in me because I look so different.
Because of this I have always turned to sports and more specifically, judo because the dojo is one of the few places I truly feel normal. Now I know a lot of people would say there is nothing normal about someone who spends the majority of his time barefoot on a mat trying to throw someone or rolling around on the floor with a bunch of sweaty people in their pajamas. This may be true, but when I’m on the mat, I feel confident in a way I don’t feel anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t walk around sulking or worrying about what people think about me. I’ve learned not to care what others think and now that I’m getting older, people assume my hair is gray and not that I’m an albino. The success I have had in judo has helped because, while Paralympians are not nearly as revered as Olympians, my success in the sport as an athlete and a coach has definitely helped boost my self-esteem. Most of the benefit judo has had in my life is not the medals; it’s the people, some of the greatest people in the world. Like I said, I feel normal on the mat, maybe because you have to be a little crazy to do judo, so my abnormality gets lost among all the others weirdoes.
Being that judo has been such an important part of my life and has done so much for me, it also makes me feel good about myself to be able to help do the same for others, and especially for other visually impaired individuals. Having others feel I have something valuable to offer and show me the same respect I showed my Sensei and coaches always makes me feel so proud.
Ok, now that I have told you something way more personal than I had intended when I started this article, I’ll share part of a message I got on Facebook from a former student. I won’t give his name because I haven’t asked for his permission to share this publically, but it made me feel so proud when I read it, I just have to share it, so I hope he will forgive me.
I can’t tell you how much that means to me. Knowing that in the short time he was with us he developed a love of judo and that when he was able he joined a club where he is now living. That is what is judo is all about, and that is another reason I’ll never quit!
As always, thanks for reading!
I’ll talk to you later…