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When I was told that I was chosen to represent the United States at the 2011 Sanix Judo Tournament, in Fukuoka, Japan, I was in complete shock. At first, I didn’t believe that I was selected. Once I realized my sensei, Eiko Shepherd, wasn’t joking I started thinking about all the hard training it was going to take to get my sensei’s approval to even go. So many things were going through my mind; like how was I going to learn Japanese? Sensei told me that invitation meant it was going to be a long and difficult road and asked me if I was going to commit to the training. She’s a very tough teacher and doesn’t like to waste her time. So I knew I had to commit all the way.

It wasn’t easy putting in all the extra practice for the tournament. We started with weight training every Tuesday Thursday one hour before judo practice. I actually liked it. On Saturday or Sunday my sensei added additional training at Cahokia Mounds. The mound has 154 stairs to reach the top. A total of 308 stairs is 1 set. I had to run 10 sets plus an additional 154 stairs as a warm up. That totals 4234 stairs. The last 3 sets were gruesomely painful, but I never gave up. Which by the way is the English translation of my club name, Kitokan, it means to ‘Never Give Up.’ My family would walk the steps, not run them like I me, to show their support and encouragement. Sensei also added extra judo practices. I began attending judo 3x a week. She made sure that all of my serious training was with judokas of higher belt and weight divisions. She even secretly told them to challenge me extra hard. During the 2 hour practices, I was not allowed to sit down or take breaks. Training was brutal. I also had to compete in what seemed like every local, regional and national tournament. She would enter me in as many matches at the tournament as possible and watch me closely. When we returned back to the dojo, she would make corrections to my technique.

All this extra training made the days fly by. Before I knew it, it was time to leave St. Louis and my family to fly to Japan. At first, I thought being away from my family was one of the best things that could happen. They were driving me nuts worrying about me hurting myself in Japan but later on I did miss them being with me. My Sensei, Eiko Shepherd and I, flew from St. Louis, Missouri, to Newark, New Jersey where we met teammate Cooper and his dad. I wondered if Cooper and I would like each other; and I was glad that he turned out to be a pretty cool guy. From Newark we flew to Tokyo and then on to Fukuoka, Japan. We lost an entire day when we crossed the timeline. It was nighttime there and daytime back home.

Fukuoka was a culture shock. I had never been out of the United States. I was not used to seeing and hearing a different language. I came without my family, but I travelled for so many years with Sensei Shepherd that she is like a mom to me. So I made sure to keep her in my eyesight and not get lost. A car picked us up at the airport and took us to the Global Arena.

The Global Arena was great! It was larger than I thought it would be. I really like to eat so I remember the food was excellent. On the campsite there was also a spa, bakery and library. The dorm room was 8 rows of bunk beds. I was hoping there would be something to do in there but there wasn’t. So you got a good chance to get to know your teammates.

There was not time to get over our jet lag because the next morning we began practice. My sensei told my how tough the training was going to be at the arena so I knew I was mentally prepared and hoped all my training back home would be enough. Daily training was strenuous and felt like it would never end. Each morning we woke for breakfast, which was like most American breakfast foods. Next, was 15 – 3 minute rounds of mat work. Then break for lunch which was mostly seafood, chicken and rice. After lunch, we did 25 minutes of stretching, then rondori. The practices left me with mat burns on my elbows and gi burns across my neck. Sensei Saito said that my bruises meant that I’d actually trained. I think he just wanted to make me feel better. I still have the scars.

Sometimes we were allowed to go to the spa after training. The tub was huge, like the size of a large room and filled with hot water. We don’t have those in St. Louis, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But part of my experience in Japan was to try as many things as I could. I was so glad I went. The water felt good on my aching muscles.

Most of the competitors didn’t speak English but those who did tried their best. I had already learned a few Japanese phrases from my team back in St. Louis, so I was able to do stuff, like introduce myself, say “Thank You”, “I’m sorry.” and “Where’s the bathroom?” Thank God, Jeff, a translator assigned to Team USA, helped us communicate anything else. But I tried my best and used the language when I could.

The day of the tournament was exciting. All the teams were cheering for their teammates and showing team support. Sometimes I would listen to all the different languages being yelled across the room. When it was my turn to compete, I got my head back in the game. Before I stepped on the mat, I thought about how important it was to do my best. I didn’t want to let Team USA, my family, my dojo and most importantly, my sensei down. My family and sensei made many sacrifices so that I could come to Japan and represent our country. I didn’t want to go home without a win. I didn’t even want to think about a loss….and I didn’t. I won my match! I was so happy!

Although myself and my teammate Cooper won our matches, Team USA was unable to get a third win to move to the next round in the tournament. But that evening, as my reward, I treated myself with another trip to the spa. Ahhhhhhh….. This was one cultural experience I was really going to miss.

The next few days we travelled to different dojos in Fukuoka and competed in mock tournaments. The Japanese kids were very friendly and actually chanted my name, “Jack-son! Jack-son!”, when I won a match against one of their black belts. That was pretty cool.

We were also able do a little sight-seeing. We travelled on a bus with the Dutch and the South American teams. Some parts of Japan reminded me of home, like the way the country side looked. But other parts, like the shrines we visited, were so different. I enjoyed visiting a shrine that displayed weapons that once belonged to an Emperor. We also went to a restaurant and a shopping mall, where I got lost. I thought I would panic, but I had become comfortable in Japan and was very calm and made my way back to the tournament bus. There was lots of teasing and laughter on the bus. We all had a good time.

On the last day of the tournament, we talked about getting a little home sick. For me coming to Japan, meant that I had spent Christmas away from my family; but the sacrifice was worth it. I’m now an international traveler! I speak a little Japanese. I met kids from around the world and realized we’re all the same no matter where we come from. I competed and trained with some of the best kids in judo. I won my judo match; and I made Sensei Shepherd and my family proud. I feel changed. More confident.

When I returned home, my mom was so embarrassing. She was telling everyone and I mean EVERYONE, complete strangers even, about my experience in Japan. Each person she told was so proud of my achievements and how our team represented the United States. I’ll be honest. I knew that we “went” to represent the United States, but I was thinking, would anyone in the United States ever “really” know about it? Well my mom is telling EVERYONE!

The 2011 Sanix Judo Tournament was great! Thank you, USA JUDO, USJF and 2011 Sanix USA Staff for this experience. Thank you Sensei Shepherd for the “brutal” training and weight sessions back home and for everything you’ve done for me.

It was an honor to be part of Team USA. I hope that I can work hard enough to be chosen again in 2012. I want to see us make it to the top! We can do this!