I used to live in a neighborhood boasting several martial-arts schools, and always liked walking by at night to see them all lit up and peopled with serious-looking little girls and boys in their crisp white gis. But it wasn't until recently that I heard about the woman who was partially responsible for making sure that girls got an equal shake in martial-arts training and competition. Rusty Kanokogi, who died in November, 2009 at the age of 74, was the first woman to earn a seventh-degree black belt in judo. But perhaps more important, she was a pioneer in making the sport accessible to women in a time before Title IX.
Kanokogi was born Rena Glickman in Brooklyn in 1935. The scrappy child of largely absent parents, she was the leader of a street gang called the Apaches; her early interest in judo, sparked by a neighborhood acquaintance, led her to New York's judo clubs, where she was summarily turned away from the all-male trainings and competitions. She continued to practice on her own, but soon realized that if she wanted to compete, she would have to do so as a man. With cropped hair, taped-down breasts, and the name "Rusty," she entered and won the New York State YMCA judo championships in 1959, but when one of the organizers asked point-blank if she was a woman, Rena 'fessed up—and lost her gold medal. And that's when she realized that the sport needed a real kick in the ass from female judokas.
After several years in Japan, where she was the first woman to train at Tokyo's famed Kodokan Institute, she returned to the United States with her husband, judo and karate black belt Ryohei Kanokogi, and the two began carving out an American foothold for women's judo with training centers in Brooklyn. Men's judo was introduced as an Olympic sport at the 1964 games, and Kanokogi vowed that women, too, would get the chance to compete. When she wasn't teaching and training in the gym or raising her two children, she was lobbying sports organizations, writing letters on behalf of female competitors, raising money, and threatening the likes of the International Olympics Committee with legal action. "I was totally crazy," she told the New York Times in a February 2009 interview. "You said, 'Hello, Rusty,' and you had three hours of judo conversation on your hands."
In 1980, Kanokogi established the first women's judo world championship, and in 1988, 24 years after men's judo became an Olympic sport, Kanokogi brought a U.S. women's team to the summer games in Seoul. In 1991, she was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. In 2004, she served as NBC's judo commentator for the summer Games in Athens. And that same year, the gold medal she won back in 1959 was finally returned to its rightful place around her neck.
Early in 2009, less than a year before she died of leukemia, Kanokogi established the Rusty Kanokogi Fund for the Advancement of Women's Judo, a project of the Women's Sports Foundation that funds training and travel for female judo competitors. In a time when it's easy to focus on the you-go-girl awesomeness of young martial artists, Kanokogi's life story seems tailor-made for a nostalgic, spunky feature film starring Amy Adams. But her story is also a reminder that we can't forget the sexism that still pervades the larger world of sports and competition. It may seem quaint and Just One of the Guys-esque that Rena Glickman had to strap down her chest once upon a time, but the legacy of discrimination against and dismissal of female athletes runs deep—and Rusty Kanokogi, for one, would want us to keep fighting.
Note: This post was originally published on the Bitch blogs on December 21, 2009. Kanokogi's story still kicks ass, so we're re-posting it today for those who didn't see it the first time around.