Kayla, Rusty, and the "best sport in the world"
When I opened The Boston Globe on Friday morning, I was greeted by a large photo above the fold of a jubilant Kayla Harrison, who had just become the first US judo athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
Her story is inspiring indeed. At 16, she had turned up at a training center in a Boston suburb. Depressed and full of rage after years of being sexually abused by one of her judo coaches (now serving a ten-year prison sentence), she began working with Jimmy Pedro and his father Jim Pedro, Sr. Jimmy Pedro, himself an Olympic medalist, told the Globe “She’s had to overcome so much that to step on the Olympic mat is nothing compared to what she’s already beaten. That’s what gives her incredible resolve.” Harrison told the press that she hoped her gold medal would change “America’s perspective on judo … I love my sport. It’s the best sport in the world.”
Rusty Glickman Kanokogi would have agreed. I hope Kayla Harrison knows her story. She was the tough Jewish kid from Coney Island who also thought judo was the best sport in the world. Unfortunately, when Rusty was in her prime, women’s judo was not included in the Olympics. She worked hard to change that and finally succeeded. In 1988, the International Olympic Committee finally admitted women’s judo to competition. Rusty Kanokogi, known as the “Mother of Women’s Judo,” traveled to Seoul, Korea, as coach of the U.S. team.
You’ll doubtless be hearing much more about Kayla Harrison. To learn more about Rusty Kanokogi, see Gabrielle Orcha’s July 30th post on “Jewesses with Attitude” and a 2007 tribute to her on the “We Remember” section of jwa.org.