Rena Kanokogi, Judo pioneer, dies

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Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi, a Coney Island scrapper who will always be remembered as the Mother of Woman’s Judo, has died following a prolonged bout with leukemia. She was 74.

Her daughter, Jean Kanokogi, told reporters that the Brooklyn native died on November 21 at Lutheran Medical Center, ending the three year face-off with the fatal disease.

Rusty was never one to give up, friends and relatives said as they remembered the tenacious woman who let an embarrassing incident in the 1950s embolden her to ensure that women were as equal as men in the world of Martial Arts.

During an interview with Kanokogi, born Rena Glickman, this past summer, the plucky senior proudly described herself as an “aggressive, big girl” living near the Coney Island amusement area in the 1940s and 1950s.

“They always picked me first for street games,” she said. “I knew I had some talent, but I was on the wrong track because at the time there weren’t any sports for girls. It’s not like I could get on the football team.”

Kanokogi said she was hanging out with a neighborhood “tough girls gang” when she found an outlet for her hidden talents -- Judo.

Friends said at first Rusty wanted to equip her gang with the moves she learned, but soon fell in love with the art form.

“It was this mystery thing and it was something combative and full contact,” she remembered. “At the time, fighting in the street only got me in trouble.”

Kanokogi -- the niece of painter Lee Krasner, wife of abstract expressionist master Jackson Pollock (Rusty was the advisor to Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a supporting role for “Pollock”) -- joined the Judo team in the Brooklyn Central YMCA, where she was the only woman in a crew of 40.

“I trained harder than all of them,” she remembered. “I knew I had to be better because I knew everybody’s middle eyes were watching me.”

Rusty’s date with destiny came in 1959, when her team participated in the YMCA Judo Championships and her coach asked her to participate.

Sporting very short hair and a T-shirt that flattened her breasts, Kanokogi had fought in inter-club competitions without any problem. She never told competition officials that she was a man.

While the YMCA Judo Championships in Utica were higher stakes, Kanokogi thought once again that she would be judged on her talents, not her chromosomes.

“Her coach said, ‘Don’t bring any attention. Just pull a draw,’” Jean Kanokogi said. “I guess she couldn’t help herself, and she beat the guy.”

After helping her team win, Kanokogi was forced to give back her medal because she was a woman, even tough there were no rules against female participation.

At first she refused, but then agreed after she was told that her entire team would have to forfeit their medals if she didn’t.

After she was forced to give back her medal, “She felt like no woman should ever suffer that indignity again. And that’s how it all started,” Jean Kanokogi said.

“I never wanted that to happen to another girl or woman again,” Rusty told this paper during that summertime interview. “That gave me the incentive to do what I did.”

What she did was put Women’s Judo on the map.

Building a following from her dojo on Flatbush Avenue near Glenwood Road and from teaching classes at the Berkeley Carroll School, Kanokogi is credited with helping to create the first Women’s World Judo Championships, which were held in 1980 in Madison Square Garden. She reportedly mortgaged her Coney Island home to finance the event.

She’s best recognized for turning women’s judo into an Olympic sport and for coaching the first U.S. women’s judo team at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. She also worked as a judo commentator for NBC during the network’s coverage of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

“Rusty was the Gloria Steinem of judo, and women’s judo would not be where it is today without her relentless efforts,” Corinne Shigemoto, the U.S. team’s coach at the 1996 Olympics, said in a USA Judo statement.

Kanokogi’s determination and zeal about women’s judo were infectious, said Judge Alice Fisher Rubin, a longtime friend of Rusty’s who fondly remembers a time when she helped put up 15 German women judo competitors at her home for a week at Rusty’s behest.

“[Rusty] was generally persistent in her goals, but in a good way,” Judge Rubin remembers. “She didn’t go out and cultivate people to help her. People were just drawn to her. It didn’t take much for her to persuade people into doing something like putting 15 people up at your house, because you knew you would have a good time doing it. She’ll be sorely missed.”

Her many accolades include the Emperor’s Award of the Rising Sun, the highest honor the Japanese government gives to foreigners who have had a positive influence on Japanese society. She is also the first woman to receive the ranking of seventh-degree black belt.

Through it all, however, she never strayed too far from her Brooklyn roots. She ultimately left Coney Island, only to move into nearby Sheepshead Bay, friends recalled.

Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was among the many dignitaries to cheer her on as she was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, called Kanokogi “a true Brooklyn character in the best sense of the word — a world-famous champion of Judo and women’s sports around the world.”

“She truly did Brooklyn proud,” she said.

Yet despite the many accolades she received, probably the most notable came just a few months ago -- when the YMCA decided to right a very old wrong and give her the medal she was forced to surrender in 1959.

She was presented a facsimile of the actual medal during a special ceremony at the YMCA on Ninth Street in Park Slope in August, where she was honored 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.”

“It’s good to come out a winner,” Kanokogi told friends after finally receiving the honor. “It’s never too late to right a wrong.”

Kanokogi is survived by her daughter, her husband, Ryohei Kanokogi, and son, Ted Kanokogi.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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