Put me in a jar with Rena "Rusty" Kanokogi, give it a few shakes and pull me out. I'd never again be boring, weak, uncaring or humorless. I would have a lasting coating of spunk, tirelessness, compassion and fervor. I would be indomitable, unforgettable and endearing to everyone but the foot-dragging powers-that-be who oppose me.
Rena Kanokogi, pushing 70, has been called many things, but is most known as the first lady of women's judo worldwide. Thank goodness she's somehow finding time in her frenetic schedule to chronicle her journey.
One can't help but wonder how little Rena Glickman would have turned out if she had had any of her childhood needs met by someone other than herself. Would she have become the highest-ranking American woman in the sport of judo? Would she have had the nerve to try to conceal her gender in order to participate in high-level competition? Would she have drawers full of awards reflecting a lifetime of competing, refereeing and crusading? She was named to the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. Due largely to her efforts, women's judo became an Olympic sport in 1988. She rocked the boat for decades with the sports establishment.
She was born to parents whose lives were tales of setbacks and wrong turns, parents who came up far short in providing and protecting her in the crummy neighborhoods of Coney Island, N.Y. As early as age 7, she was finding odd jobs anywhere she could find them as she found a sense of belonging among society's rejects: the freaks, hustlers and barkers of her Coney Island underworld. "Every other person was a flimflam person," Kanokogi remembered. By adolescence she was the head of a street gang called the Apaches.
A pattern emerged that has not abated one bit, of Rusty the protector, the hunter, pouncing and scrapping whenever confronted by cruelty or injustice. "Injustice drives me nuts." Nurturer came later. Her battles eventually shifted from the boardwalk to the boardroom.
In the '50s weightlifting was off-limits to females at the YMCA. So she picked up her brother's weights and exercise gadgets and started working with the heavy bag at the gym. One night in 1955 a male friend showed her a move he had picked up in a YMCA judo class. Even though he was 20 pounds lighter, he threw her effortlessly. Her reaction set the course for her life. "I love that! How'd you do that?"
Why judo? She fell in love with judo, not for the self-defense it afforded, but because it calmed her down. She already knew how to defend herself. She decided to channel her immense reserve of energy into this sport that instilled self-control. And she admits the physical contact was not unappealing. Coming from an environment where "you were either the hammer or the nail," she recognized that she loved striking. Kanokogi became so enthralled with judo that her skill level enabled her to be the first woman to train in Japan at the Kokodan, the mecca of Judo, in Tokyo in 1962. After a week of pulverizing her female opponents, the masters invited her to become the first woman ever to work out in the main dojo with the men. That is where she met her future husband, Ryohei. They had two children and teamed up to establish training centers in Brooklyn, an endeavor that consumes them to this day. In the mid-'70s she shifted from competing to teaching, refereeing and advocating full-time.
Over the course of her life she sustained a broken nose, a broken arm and 20 fractures in her toes, broke both collarbones and dislocated her shoulder. Why so many injuries? The quantity of injuries she attributes to two things: the poor quality of the mats used back then and the intensity of her male opponents who could not risk losing to a female. "I was a threat," she said. "When they threw me, they tried to put me through the cellar."
The reward for the Kanokogis is witnessing the psychological transformation in so many of their students. In trying to meet their needs, Rusty said, "What I see in each boy, each girl, is me." The message she delivers to her students is one she never received as a child: "We're going to build on what you have, because you have a lot." The downside emotionally for Rusty is the common phenomenon of losing her students to other more glamorous high school sports. The loss is painful, yet sweet, since she knows she has given these people a belief in themselves that they will apply to all aspects of their lives.
She recalls the early days of the Women's Sports Foundation with fondness and gratitude, and she marvels at the persistence and drive of Billie Jean King. The support she felt from the organization was much needed. "It was like belonging to a church."
Finish that autobiography, Rusty. The story is not over yet. There are too many lives out there to touch, more souls to inspire.