Part of Four Days in London. A memoir about trying to find a way to the Olympics, and finding something else instead. This takes place in January 2010.
It is four AM and everything is quiet. I am in a common area for the athletes dorm. There’s a television I haven’t bothered to turn on. I browse the web on my phone and make a phone call home. It won’t be a long conversation, after all it is an international call, but it helps me pass the time. I walk back over to the room I’m staying. Of all the things I wish I had pictures of, the intercoms I pass by are high on the list. The have red dots and look almost exactly like Hal from 2001 a Space Odyssey.
Despite being January the room is impossibly hot. I can’t find a way to change the heat but my jet lag is so bad I can’t sleep anyways. A combination of jet lag and adrenaline has left me unable to sleep for 24 hours. I still feel eager and alert. I wake up Sam, the kid from Wales and the only other native English speaker I’d know for three weeks. He’s supposed to be here for a year. He seems nice enough and we get along. I’m a few years older than he is but he’s tough. We haven’t trained together yet but I just get that vibe from him. We have practice at five and I want to get a move on in case we get lost.
By the time Sam finishes getting ready we’re in luck. Someone from the judo team . One of the heavyweights from the Tsukuba judo team has swung by the athletes dorm to bring us to practice. I would run into him again many years later at the Kodokan.
The air is cold. Not the sort of bone chilling cold that would make the walk across campus unbearable, but cold enough that I am glad to have a pair of gloves. I spot a convenience store named Lawson near the dorm. I bookmark this for later. The walk isn’t long, maybe fifteen minutes.
The locker room is on the second floor. Its crowded with half awake athletes. There’s a shower room that’s part of the locker area. My mentor George had told me that the tradition was to shower both before and after practice. Sure enough the shower was crowded. I made a joke as I got in about dropping the soap but I realized as I made it that anyone listening either not understand what I said or the joke.
I met up with and spoke with the coach and with my friend Taka. Per custom, I had a bought a bunch of gifts to give people who had helped me while I was in Japan. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I bought a bunch of Boston Red Sox hats. I presented one to the coach Okada Sensei and then one to Taka. By the time I was born Okada had already won an Olympic medal. I looked forward to learning from him.
Kangeiko is a ritualistic training camp. The primary purpose is mental training. The idea is to kick off the training for the year with the most difficult physical training possible. In the dead of winter all of the windows are opened and a series of doors along the floor of the mat are opened. The room is so cold that later in practice I would slip on ice on the mat. Because of the problems with the flight I was actually a day late to the training camp.
The practice outline was up on a white board. I couldn’t read any of it except for the numbers so I just followed everyones lead. The practice began with a half hour warm up. While traditional judo warm ups all have their variations most follow a basic formula.
- Jog with some running exercises tossed in
- Gymnastic drills
- Light to moderate drilling.
When we got to the drilling it was just fitting in on different throws, with a speed drill thrown in at the end. This was nice but it really wasn’t a test of physical endurance. I’m often shocked at how many BJJ schools will attempt to front load the difficulty of their practices. They will try to make the warm up physically exhausting and then train afterwards. Judo practices are almost always the opposite to this.
We then had about a half hour of sparring on the ground. How hard it was depended on who you trained with. Newaza (also known as ground work) was, by judo standards, something of a specialty of mine. So suffice to say I trained hard through those rounds. Others would take them lightly and use them to further warm up. With what happened next I understood their decision.
We had ten eight minute rounds with a two minute rest in between on the feet. To put this in perspective my standard difficult practice was ninety minutes. I may have had a practice prior to this or a strength and conditioning session, but ninety minutes to warm up, drill, and spar on the feet and on the ground was enough to leave me exhausted. A hundred minutes of being on my feet after an hour of previous activity was going to be a challenge.
The first few rounds I feel fine. I’m awake and excited. I also don’t have any big wear and tear yet from the camp. I grab Sam and we start to fight. He’s a little smaller than me but we’re in the same size range. He was strong as an ox. Later I’d learn his main hobby for years was rugby. He was also left sided and had a sneaky counter.
What defines a right versus a left side player is to what side does their majority of their attacks hit. A right sided player will traditionally look to attack around the right side of my body and vice versa. At this level everyone has attacks to both sides but its systematic. Most of my scores came from attacking my opponents left side, but only after selling them on the idea that the main threat was still to their right. With a few rare stylistic exceptions such as French judoka, you can reliably predict what side a judo player is based on their lead leg. A right leg means they’re a righty and a left leg means their probably a lefty.
I had two main attack patterns back then for left sided players. I would either fight to gain inside control of their lead shoulder with my lead arm or I would try to pull their lead hand by me. My favorite technique when using the later involved pulling their sleeve across my body with my left hand and reaching around to grab their back with my right hand. My right leg would then shoot between their legs and I could attack from there.
Sam was tricky. He had a counter to this movement. When I pulled his arm across he would use his hand to catch my lapel or sometimes would settle for my sleeve. As I reached around him he would slip his lead leg in front, stopping me from getting my lead leg between his. The first time he did this I felt my heels lift, then my toes, and then boom I was on my back. It was a nifty counter and I struggled to stop it the whole time I was in Japan.
After training with Sam a tall man asked to train with me. He was about my height and very muscular. Just before practice I saw him virtually inhaling a container of whey protein powder. We both put our right foot forward at the beginning of the round. As was somewhat customary I raised both of my hands to signal an interest in skipping the grip fighting portion of the round. I loved fighting for my favorite grips, I found it fun and I was good at it. I had traveled here to improve my ability to throw however, so I hoped to have a more focused round of sparring. He did not oblige me.
His style was what you would expect out of a Japanese player with a twist. While he was certainly technical he didn’t have any qualms about being extremely physical. His right hand would fire like a cannon towards my neck. If it happened to catch my face on its way through so be it. His gripping style was misleading. At first he seemed like just another power player but he had much more nuance. His style reminded me more of a boxer, throwing jabs with left hand before throwing a right straight.
We got towards the wall and I loosened up a little to try to direct us away from it. This was a mistake. He slammed me into it. As I tried to get up he threw me again. On the second attempt to stand I timed him and put him into the wall. Now with my back to open space I quickly jogged backwards to get away from the wall. After taking a clean elbow punch to the nose and an elbow to the gut in the following exchange I realized this was guy was going to be a problem. Towards the end of the round I fired off a throwing attempt that ended with both of my feet up kicking straight between his legs. To this day my dad refers to this guy as “my best friend”.
On the mat was a few faces I was familiar with. Ono, the current world #1 at the weight class above me was there. Two others who would become regular rounds for me were Nishiyama and Awano. They both would medal at the world championships the following summer. One of the main rivals of my teammate Kayla was there: Ogata.
When the practice was over I showered and crumpled into a heep. Sam and I found our way back to the dorm. I watched Dragon Ball Z Abridged and went to sleep. We had another practice at 5 PM. A practice exactly the same as the one we had just struggled through.
I was still excited by the time the evening practice rolled around. I have no distinct memories of that practice beyond a single event. My “best friend” once again challenged me. This time it was in newaza. I started from a defensive position and quickly reversed him but not before his knee hit me in the nuts. He flattened himself out with his stomach on the ground. Both of his hands were in a defensive position to defend the strangle hold and his elbows were tight to defend any turn overs. Despite his previous bravado he was clearly content to sit there and wait out the rest of the round. Combined with his strength, there was no way I was going to be able to score on him while he was in this position if I was nice. Thankfully, he had already established precedent that being nice to each other was not required. So I started to dig my knuckles into the side the side of his jaw and my elbow into the base of his neck. He finally tapped out a few minute later. Through out the rest of my trip he was my rival. He and I would fight each other at least once a practice, sometimes continuously across two or three rounds. I usually beat him but there was a period in the middle where he edged me out.
I later found out that he and my teammate Travis had experienced a similar bond. When I relayed this part of the story to my teammates, they described someone who matched his characteristics repeatedly trying to kick Travis in the nuts. Travis chimed in that they at one point spent a round barely trying to throw each other, instead trying to get the best angle for kicking the other.
By the next day a soft form of dread had set in. It’s the reluctance that one can feel when they are about to take on an extremely difficult task. Its the same thing you feel that makes you procrastinate going to the gym. For me this gym had at least a hundred high quality Japanese black belts who were eager to kick my ass. The practices continued to be difficult. In between I would do my strength and conditioning, do school work, and check in with home.
The last practice was Saturday morning. By this point I felt as if my body had been run over by a truck from Mad Max. Even my rival, who for a intents and purposes appeared to not just be a jerk but very enthusiastic about this whole thing, looked like a zombie. We all struggled through the practice. I was excited because I planned to leave as soon as the practice was over to explore Tokyo.
When I finished gathering my things after practice I shambled down the steps to the first floor. To my surprise there was a feast in front of me. My friends back home had neglected to tell me there was giant celebration at the end of the training camp.
The party was fun and fully stocked with beer and food. It was a great way to end a week of hard training. I couldn’t stay for long though. It was time to head to Tokyo.