wo damp hands clasp my face. Two googly globe eyes lock into my tired ones. I’m stuck.
“Marti, I know you’re upset. I know you want to cry. But you have to fight one more time.”
The eyes don’t move. Mine do.
“Marti, you need to put this behind you. Trust me, you’re going to feel a million times worse if you don’t turn your head around and focus on this next fight.”
That’s not true, I thought. I’d just lost my semi-finals match at the London Olympics. I could have made history. I could have been the first American woman to win Olympic gold in judo. Now that was all gone. How could I possibly feel worse than this?
hose two googly eyes give me the answer. They belong to my coach, Jimmy Pedro. And he knows exactly what’s worse than losing in the semi-finals. Jimmy won two Olympic bronze medals, but he also finished fifth once at the Olympics and once at the World Championships — which means he twice lost his chance at winning a bronze. Going home completely empty handed after being so close to earning a medal is what’s truly devastating.
That’s when it dawns on me that I totally could feel worse than I do now.
Jimmy lets go of my head, and it’s as if he has erased my memory — as though he’s used the “neuralyzer” from Men in Black. And then, as I prepare for the bronze medal match only minutes after falling to the loser’s bracket, I notice something’s missing: nerves. Jimmy’s taken them away.
I walk onto the mat to face Italy’s Giulia Quintavalle — the Olympic champion from Beijing in 2008 — and notice something that I never saw from all the times we’d spent matching up against one another in different competitions throughout the years: nerves.
If you’re nervous, especially in judo, not only will your opponent realize it, but your split-second decision-making will also fail you.
We bow and assume our fighting stances. Giulia starts dancing around on the mat. After about two minutes, she receives a penalty for being non-combative. In judo, it’s illegal to be “defensive” and not attack — it’s against the whole idea of the sport. It’s like a shot clock in basketball — without it, one team would sit back for the entire game. I know she’s nervous, which gives me the confidence to go in for a decisive move.
I instinctively execute a sode tsurikomi goshi, a throw (read: technique) that puts the opponent’s weight on her back heels. Then I go to my second move, a ko-uchi gari, or what’s more commonly known as a foot sweep. Her back thuds against the mat. And with that, I won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games.
Judo is a sport where the primary goal is to put your opponent on their back as hard and as fast as you can. Matches are five minutes for men and four minutes for women. If you can get your opponent flat on their back with speed and force, it’s an automatic win. It’s the equivalent to a knockout in boxing.
Many may think that judo is a close relative to other martial arts, or even to boxing, but the truth is that they’re about as similar as basketball is to football. Sure, they have their common ground, but once you watch a match you’ll pick up on the fact that the differences are clear.
Judo is about instantaneous reaction where, everything I do, my opponent is going to try with 100 percent of her physical and mental power to stop me. Entering a fight, my mind needs to be as clear as possible. No matter how well I know her throws and grabbing technique, I can never predict what my opponent is going to do. If I have any preconceived notion about her game plan, those notions quickly disappear once the fight begins.
And – oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m about to say this – you have to be like water. Yep, a judoka quoting Bruce Lee. But it’s so true. The number of decisions you have to make in a split second based on the movements of your opponent are actually ridiculous. Keeping your mind blank and making your movements instinctual is my main goal during a match.
There are 60 or so main throws. Attempting to figure out which throw your opponent will use isn’t really possible in a matter of milliseconds. That’s why the great judokas complement their instincts with a vast knowledge of throws. Whether you step left or right, forward or backward, whether you bend your knee or switch the position of your feet, an exceptional judoka will recognize which direction your balance is going and use any number of moves to counter your balance in order to maneuver you onto your back. If your opponent knows your go-to move, they will avoid giving up their position so that you can’t attempt that move.
Like many athletes, I train year-round. That is, unless I’m injured (which happens about once or twice a year). Every night of the week except Sunday (unless I have to cut weight) I do judo for two hours. I complete an additional cycle of conditioning training in the morning on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. I weight-train on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. And I do all this under the observations of my trainer Eitan Gelber and my coaches Shintaro Nakano and Yosh Uchida, who is 95 years old.
Yes, Coach Yosh was born in 1920.
He was the U.S. team coach at the first Olympic judo tournament, at the ’64 Games in Japan, the birthplace of the sport.
Yosh is to judo what Gregg Popovich is to the NBA (O.K., Pop doesn’t look that old). When you’ve been around judo for as long as he’s been, you’ve seen just about everything. He’s taught me classic Japanese judo, in which you manipulate the balance of your opponent using precise technique. That differs from other styles around the world, like in Europe, where judo can be more physical and resembles something closer to wrestling.
Yosh is also the one who guided me through the judo belt system. The belt is rather utilitarian — it’s an easy way to judge how advanced a particular judoka is, eliminating the need for any awkward conversations about how long they’ve been practicing judo. A win-win!
There are five degrees of a black belt, and it’s up to your club to decide on when you advance to the next degree. For example, after receiving my undergraduate degree from San Jose State, I was automatically given my third-degree black belt. Call it old-school, but Yosh has this thing about setting an example to the rest of the country about what it means to get an education and also be a judoka. A little incentive can go a long way. When I made the Olympic team for the first time, I was awarded my fifth-degree.
My tokui-waza — or favorite throw — is ippon seoinage. Not only is it fun to say, but it’s also famous for its cameos in kung fu and action films. It’s that one-arm shoulder throw that they use to take down the bad guy. My other tokui-waza is the armbar maneuver known as juji-gatame, which is what I win most of my fights with.
You may have never heard of a tokui-waza, and you may have never heard of judo. But I’m sure you have an idea of who Ronda Rousey is. It was back in our teenage years that she and I learned how to perfectly perform a juji-gatame.
Because we were the same weight class, Ronda and I always fought in competitions as kids together. You could say she was my arch-nemesis, mostly because she was so dominant. In judo, there are age restraints on when you can practice the armbar. When we were young, that age was 17. Do you think that stopped Ronda Rousey from learning it? At 12 or 13, she would be destroying people with that move. As we grew up, she switched weight classes — first to 63 kilos and then to 70 kilos — while I remained at 57 kilos. It was this one judo technique that became the backbone of Ronda’s career.
And while the UFC has exploded in popularity recently, judo remains in its quiet corner of America’s fighting community, although I’m working to change that. There are an estimated 25,000 active or recreational judokas in America. Compare that with 500,000 participants in France. France’s number one judoka, Teddy Riner, is such a celebrity that they’ll put him front row at Roland Garros so the cameras can catch him for the tabloids. Something tells me that if I were at the front row of the U.S. Open, I’d be the one taking pictures.
Due to a lack of resources at home, Americans have to compete in places around the globe. Ten years ago, the U.S. was not respected as a judo power. Opponents would see that they were slated against an American and think, This will be easy.
But that’s changing. It began at the 2012 London Olympics, where Kayla Harrison captured America’s first gold medal in judo, and I joined her on the podium by winning the bronze. We’re hoping to build on that performance this summer at the Rio Olympics.
You may not know about judo because honestly, why would you? But now it’s far past time to put this wonderful sport on the map. After this summer, I’ll be the one looking into Jimmy Pedro’s googly eyes saying, “Jimmy, look how far we’ve come.”