I started judo when I was in graduate school so I don’t have any childhood memories of growing up on the mat. My first judo memory was Mr. Ogasawara setting up two bean bags on the mat and having me roll between them for an hour straight, and then the leg pain that I felt as I tried to descend the steep flight of stairs from the dojo that was above the old Ford dealership. I remember my very first randori as a white belt. I was up against Charlie Wall and he threw me with te-garuma. I had no idea which way was up as I hit the mat – it was amazing!!!
As a brown belt, I remember walking into the Kodokan and training on the Women’s floor. It was such an honor to meet Osawa-sensei (10th dan) and he didn’t like my ukemis. Much like my first day of judo, I spent the next hour rolling as he kept hitting the mat with a bamboo stick to tell me to do it over. My legs had a familiar soreness as I struggled down the steps to the subway. Judo continues to be the backdrop of so many amazing memories, that I wanted to have something in the community where that was able to take place.
Judo never gets boring, there’s always more to learn. My favorite judo “activity” is attending clinics. Judo is so personal that you can go to 10 different clinics and see 10 different taio-toshis. Each person has their own spin on it — the principles of the throw are the same, but they may have an interesting drill, unique setup or different grip to make it work for their particular style. And if the clinician is a great teacher, they should really inspire you to want to practice right away. Not a lot of people have this gift.
I started Kokushi Midwest Judo in 2017. We currently have 25 members and over the years, my teaching philosophy has evolved. I “grew up” doing 100s of uchikomis every practice, and I could never translate that into randori. It was frustrating because your partner is always moving and resisting — unlike your uchikomi partner who just stood absolutely still and square to you for a hundred uchikomis. But after meeting so many people and learning from others, my classes are now focussed on movement, gripping, fighting drills and controlled randori.
People seem to enjoy it a lot more. Everyone has their favorite techniques and its fun watching the students put things together. Same with the kids — we’ve changed the class structure — yes, there are times that we do uchikomis, but we focus on building strength, endurance and character. It’s more satisfying to me to watch kids having fun on the mat with structured judo drills as opposed to perfecting their osotogari. Don’t get me wrong, technique is very important, but for kids, building character really helps them further down the road.
Grace is the current president of the Chicago Judo Black Belt Association. She owns and operates Kokushi Midwest Judo in Champaign, Illinois
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