Judo competition was the right place for street fighting girl
Published December 1, 2008
A 73-year-old woman leaned on her cane as she climbed the five steps to the podium at the Women’s Sports Foundation dinner. She stopped on the middle stair to give her shaking legs a moment’s relief. A deep breath and she finished her climb.
Rusty Kanokogi suffers from multiple myeloma, a cancer formed by malignant plasma cells. She is slowed, but far from stopped, by chronic pain and a continuing regiment of chemotherapy and radiation. In October, the “Mother of Women’s Judo” attended the dinner as a member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
At the podium, she looked out over an assembly of the brightest talent in sports, famous athletes, former athletes and front-office executives at the forefront of the women sports movement. The WSF gala is perhaps the industry’s most important annual dinner, attended by those of current celebrity, but, more importantly, by those who have labored for decades for gender equality.
When the grandmother of four and the great-grandmother of three started in sports, such a gathering couldn’t have been imagined. You’ve come a long way, baby, and you’ve traveled that road on the backs of those like Rusty Kanokogi, who as a teen searched for belonging and found it in a male-dominated sport despite the thousands of times she was told she didn’t belong.
Coney Island Apaches
Rusty Kanokogi is the toughest woman in sports. Perhaps there were doubters as she reached the podium in a multicolored silk brocade jacket and a flowing silk skirt, but the seventh-degree black belt, the highest ranking ever achieved by an American woman, grew up a street fighter and remained a fighter for life, both on the mat and in the arena of social justice.
She grew up in Brooklyn, where in the late ’40s and early ’50s her Coney Island neighborhood was as tough as any in the borough. Teenagers joined gangs for protection and for belonging.
But Rusty was a girl and girls didn’t belong. So after her Ukrainian father Max Glickman had passed away when she was 12 and her mother Rose mangled a hand in a candy-factory accident the next year, Rusty formed her own gang.
She was big, 5 feet 9 inches, and strong. She wanted to be stronger, liked her older brother, Charlie, a runner for bookmakers who worked out with weights. She had the tenacity of her artist aunt, Lee Krasner, who was married to Jackson Pollock. Rusty also had that undefined charisma associated with leadership. It was not difficult to attract the half-dozen girls who formed the nucleus of the Coney Island Apaches.
“I had energy and a chip on my shoulder. So I became a ruffian,” she said. She was once arrested for kicking a girl in the butt.
She was attracted by toughness. “I loved excitement, had a shoot-from-the-hip attitude and I buried my emotions.”
She took pride in designing the Apache look, the chartreuse and black jackets with Apaches embroidered over the hearts, black jeans, chartreuse socks and black loafers.
They went looking for fights and found one every few weeks. “The fun was in the pageantry and strategy before a fight.”
The war dress included thick, rip-proof sweaters purchased at the Army-Navy store. “We would tie our hair back and smeared Vaseline on our faces and arms making it harder to scratch.”
By her own admission, she “was going downhill.”
Then she met a man in his 40s who knew judo. When she came on to him like a thug, “he picked me up and flipped me just like that. I wanted to know how he did that.” She also wanted to know how to punch and kick. He introduced her to the judo program at the local Y. “It was my ticket out.”
The class was, of course, exclusively for men, “but I talked my way in.” There, she would work out daily and compete against 40 men weekly.
‘Women must help women’
Judo didn’t make Rusty tough; she brought that with her. When she started, women were barred from competition. She was forced to disguise herself as a man and suffered other indignities. But Rusty’s career in judo over the next 50 years is filled with competitive success. She never lost to a woman and never lost a team competition.
Still, becoming an international judo champion is a long way from becoming the “Mother of Women’s Judo.” For that, she had to take on organizations like the Amateur Athletic Union and even the International Olympic Committee.
Her struggle for acceptance of women in the male-dominated sport was in itself a street fight. And like most of her fights, she was a winner. In 1988, she was the coach of the USA women’s judo team in Seoul, South Korea, competing in the Olympics for the first time. She is credited with leading that charge. “The most important thing is that women must help women,” she said.
Last week, with her Japanese husband of 44 years at her side — Ryohei Kanokogi is an eighth-degree black belt from samurai stock — Rusty was awarded the prestigious “Emperor’s Award of the Rising Sun.” It’s the highest award Japan bestows on a foreigner.
After a lifetime of distinction, the president of New York judo still gets on the mat running clinics for referees and coaches. She fights through the pain of cancer to teach at-risk kids the art of judo and in the process gives boys and girls a fighting chance to make something of their lives, as she did.
John Genzale (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founding editor of SportsBusiness Journal.