For many in the martial arts world Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi is known as the Mother of Women’s Judo.
But she wasn’t always.
Back in 1959, she was a Coney Island tomboy who took up Judo because fighting in the street, well, it just got her into trouble.
But she was good at Judo -- so much so that her coach asked her to participate in the New York State YMCA Judo Championships in Utica that year.
But even though she helped her team score a major victory for Brooklyn, a judge who was oh so a product of the sexist times demanded that she forfeit the medal because she was a woman.
Fifty years later, that oversight is about to be corrected.
At 74, Kanokogi will finally be able to add 1959 YMCA Judo Championships winner to her long resume, which includes international Judo referee, an inductee into the International Woman’s Hall of Fame and Olympic Coach for the female Judo team, which she helped create.
“It’s never too late to correct a wrong,” she said, explaining that this singular defeat emboldened her to take Judo out of the “boys only” club it had found itself in.
That wrong, as she put it, will be corrected on Friday, August 21, at the Prospect Park YMCA on 9th Street in Park Slope where she will be given the gold medal that she should have received fifty years ago for her “immeasurable impact on the expansion of the women’s competitive judo and for embodying the YMCA’s core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility in her life’s work.”
Thinking back, Kanokogi, who is married to an eighth degree black belt, said that when her coach asked her to sub for a teammate fifty years ago, all she was asked to do was “pull a draw.”
But when she went to the mat and bowed to her opponent, her instincts took over.
“I realized that I had to throw him first and throw him hard, so that’s what I did,” she said. “I won the point.”
While she didn’t get the winning point, she certainly helped bring the team over the top during the championship match. She stood proudly with her team to receive the medal and was all geared up for a night of celebrating when the tournament director asked to see her in his office.
“He looked at me and asked, ‘Are you a girl?’” Kanokogi remembered. “I thought like saying ‘Are you a cow?’”
But she didn’t. Instead she confessed to binding her breasts with ace bandages so she would fit in, although she claims no one told her to.
“He wanted the medal back or the whole team would be disqualified,” she said. “When I came back without my medal, all of my teammates wanted to give their trophies back, but I wouldn’t let them.”
As it turns out, there was no rule that a woman couldn’t compete, save forone in the tournament director’s head. On the 1960 tournament application a “must be male” caveat was thrown in.
Kanokogi left the tournament without the medal, but she did leave with soemthing else -- a mission.
“I never wanted that to happen to another girl or woman again,” she said. “That gave me the incentive to do what I did.”
Armed with a direction and an unbeatable slanting strike, Kanokogi went out to show the world the softer side of Judo -- which wasn’t so soft.
During a recent talk she gave about her adventures, she mentioned what happened in 1959, and a member of the audience wrote to the National YMCA, demanding that the gold medal be returned to her.
The YMCA wholeheartedly agreed and invited Kanokogi to come full circle.
“It’s good to come out a winner,” she said.
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