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This past December I had the good fortune to attend the SANIX International Judo Tournament as a coach for the second year in a row. If you have not traveled internationally as an athlete or a coach it is hard to imagine the scope of a trip like this. For many of the participants, this was their first time outside of the US. Going half way around the world, far from home and family, they were surrounded by a different language, new customs, and unfamiliar food from the moment they arrived. In addition to all of this, they were representing the USA against the Japanese in a sport the Japanese invented. This would be a daunting task for an adult, but for kids missing Christmas to go on this trip it could cause more than a little anxiety.

In the face of that anxiety, these kids persevered and made it a truly memorable experience. What helped make the experience so wonderful was the large number of the people who welcomed us to Japan with open arms and did their best to make us feel at home. They taught us as much as they could about Judo as well as the culture of Japan. The members of SANIX Sports and the Global Arena did an amazing job, once again, putting on both the training camp and the SANIX tournament. They had an amazing amount of attention to detail that anyone would be hard pressed to recreate. The students and staff of Taisei Junior High School were also wonderful to us on our trip. They put on a great tournament and showed us around their part of Japan. Many students even came back from winter break just to greet us when we got there. All of the care and kindness we were shown made what could have been a scary experience into a life-changing one.

For me, the SANIX trip can be broken into two parts; Judo and cultural exchange. The judo part is fairly simple. Japan has a higher quality of judo and a higher concentration of high quality competitors than in the US or possibly any other country. The only way to get a competitor to an international level is to expose them to it, which is something that this trip does in a manner that few people in any sport ever get to experience. During the training camp, we were on 6 full competition areas worth of mats and had to take turns during randori. Half of the fight was running out to claim a partner before someone else could. On top of that, there were kids of every size, shape, and weight with whom to partner, all of whom had outstanding technique. With that kind of environment, it would have been impossible for our team to do anything other than improve. Although they may not have felt like it at the time, every member of the US team got better as the trip progressed.

The second part of the trip is harder to measure but I believe it is the more important. I don’t know if anyone on this trip will become an Olympian, but I do know that they will all be better people because of this trip. The US team did a great job as ambassadors for their country and the interactions they had with the kids from all over the world will improve everyone involved for the rest of their lives.

For me the highlight of the trip wasn’t even judo related, it was the night that I got to play soccer with a group of Russian, Japanese, and American kids. They couldn’t really understand each other very well, but still spent hours playing soccer until the “mean US coach” (me) told everyone that it was time for bed. Before leaving the field the kids started to exchange Instagram’s and somehow had built a great bond that bridged the language and cultural barriers.

Throughout the rest of the trip, these kids were trained together, hung out together and exchanged candy. When two of the Japanese kids we played soccer with were knocked out in the round of 8 at SANIX, some of the US kids went right on over to congratulate them on their team’s performance (keep in mind there were 89 men’s teams) and lifted their spirits. Seeing those relationships bloom between kids that otherwise never would have met and don’t even speak the same language shows me the value of a trip like this in creating worldly young men and women who will have a positive influence on the world as they grow into adults.

As judo players, the SANIX trip also has a lasting effect. I recently helped organize a shiai in which seven SANIX alumni attended. You can see the confidence that this trip instills when they step on the mat. After the training and competition that they had to face in Japan, nothing here in the US fazes them. They know that they have faced bigger, stronger, more skilled opponents before and came out of it just fine. For them, a local shiai is easy now. From the way they bow to the composure they show in a tough match, they are more mature than other competitors their age and I truly believe that it is in a large part because of the SANIX trips they took.

I would like to sincerely thank everyone, competitors, coaches, parents, boosters, organizers both here and in Japan, who have made this trip a possibility year after year. The work that you put in is bearing fruit! If you have the chance to talk to anyone who has been on this trip, please talk to them about their experience. You will not be disappointed.

Thank you for all you do for Judo.

Gregory Ondrus
’15 & ’16 SANIX Coach