You are here

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share

Rusty Kanokogi

Mother of Women's Judo
1935 – 2009

Rena Glickman Kanokogi, known as "Rusty," died of cancer in Brooklyn, NY, on November 21, 2009 at the age of 74. She fought for many years to have women's judo made an Olympic sport; she was in Seoul, South Korea, as coach of the first U.S. women's team, when that milestone was achieved in 1988. Her efforts to promote women's judo earned her the Order of the Rising Sun, Japan's highest honor for a foreigner, a year before her death. Wendy Lewellen wrote this appreciation of Rusty Kanokogi in 2005.

by Wendy Lewellen

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.

Elsewhere on the web

More on: Teachers, Athletes
8 Comments

Rusty was a teacher at some of the various private schools in Manhattan,

She was my teacher when I attended the Dwight lower School, the school was actually named Bentley until it was purchased by the Dwight school. Bentley was located on East 71st, between Park and Lex. She taught me from 78 to 79. I later attended the Rhodes school that was moved to west 83st and she became the Judo teacher there as well and I picked up where I left off regarding her teachings.

She was a master in the art and one hell of a tough women, she was a very large and sturdy women that feared nothing. I remember I had a bracelet that I had soldered on and told her I could not remove it, she said "let me see" and she ripped it apart as it were paper. I often mixed in my own skills when we went to different schools to have tournaments. At the time I was a big wrestling fan and I would use illegal moves that did not make Rusty happy. Although I lost most tournaments because I was not using textbook Judo moves, every opponent would remember me as I tried to inflict as much pain as I could using various wrestling holds, I would hear one of my opponents scream when I had him in a scissor lock, I had to kneel backwards as points were taken off for my non-judo moves. I remembered Rusty's husband telling me that could be a great wrestler some day. But, I had to focus on the rules and techniques that Rusty taught me.

In any event, I'm very sorry she passed away. She was one of a kind and a very unique person.

She will be missed........

She was my judo teacher at Dwight School. She is missed.

To learn more about her watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

She was my judo teacher at Dwight School. She is missed.

To learn more about her watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

"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."

These are true words. I know, because it happened to me. Sensei Kanokogi was also my teacher, and her influence changed my life. She is deeply missed.

Fun fact: she was also the niece of Lee Krasner, who also has her own page on your site.

As president of the US Judo Association and being Jewish I can attest Rusty was an inspiration to all of us. I was friends with her and enjoyed her sense of humor. She was extremely well respected in the world of judo and we miss her very much.

As president of the US Judo Association and being Jewish I can attest Rusty was an inspiration to all of us. I was friends with her and enjoyed her sense of humor. She was extremely well respected in the world of judo and we miss her very much.

I will always admire any man or woman who goes the extra mile to become good at something. It's a difficult road to travel that often finds many people simply giving up. She overcame her challenges and won. It's an attitude that all the winners seem to adopt. She must have been a remarkable person. They always are. casino online

I will always admire any man or woman who goes the extra mile to become good at something. It's a difficult road to travel that often finds many people simply giving up. She overcame her challenges and won. It's an attitude that all the winners seem to adopt. She must have been a remarkable person. They always are. casino online

Rusty Kanokogi
Full image
Rusty Kanokogi fought to make women's judo an Olympic sport.
Courtesy of Jean Kanokogi

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rusty Kanokogi, 1935 - 2009." (Viewed on April 28, 2017) <https://jwa.org/weremember/kanokogi-rusty>.

Donate in Memoriam

Make a donation in memory of Betty Friedan.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

listen now

Sign Up for JWA eNews

 

Discover Education Programs

Join our growing community of educators.

view programs