Judo tourney brings 200 athletes to MI

The Mercer Island Boys & Girls Club’s gym was transformed into a martial-arts arena Saturday, as about 200 competitors from Washington and Oregon attended the Evergreen State Open Judo Championship.

The participants, who ranged in age from 5 to 17, represented more than 30 Pacific Northwest dojos, or judo training facilities.

Participants showed up as early as 7 a.m. to weigh in, and competition lasted until late afternoon.

“We start from the youngest and go up to the adults,” explained host and coach Harold Yamada.

The event was the result of a long year of planning.

“It’s one of the major events that we have in our local area,” he said. Yamada, who began coaching at Mercer Island in 2000, nine of his students compete.

Three earned first place in their weight divisions: Nicholas Germanos, Phil Frazier and Molly O’Callihan.

All of Yamada’s students are under 15 years old. Some of them, including Frazier, 12, and O’Callihan, 15, also know Yamada from his day job as student supervisor and bus driver for Islander Middle School.

Robert Wittauer, co-founder of Seattle-based Emerald City Judo, co-hosted the event and had about a dozen students competing.

“You’ve got great competitors here,” Wittauer said. “We have a variety of the experienced and the brand-new. For some it’s their first tournament ever. You can tell, if you look on their faces, who’s done it before.”

In the relatively small Pacific Northwest judo community, the tournament is a highlight of the year.

“The judo community is very small, so everybody knows everybody,” Yamada said.

“It’s a total community feeling,” Wittauer agreed. “It’s about everybody showing up, supporting each other’s dojos, supporting each other’s tournament, and lending a hand when needed.”

Wittauer and Yamada truly understand that sense of community; the two men both began judo as students of Yamada’s father, the senior Sensei Yamada.

Judo, a modern offshoot of jujitsu, is different from typical martial arts because its emphasis is on maneuvering the opponent’s body, as opposed to the offensive tactics of punches and kicks.

“It’s more like freestyle wrestling,” explained Calvin Tarada, a referee for the International Judo Federation, who was one of many volunteer referees present at Saturday’s event. “At the higher levels some elements of martial arts come in, but at the basic level we teach the sport of judo.”

Although it is the second most popular sport in the world, topped only by soccer, judo has not received much popular support in the United States. This is probably due to the fact that no American has ever won a gold medal for the sport.

“We’ve yet to get the gold in the Olympics. But once we do, people will know what we’ve got,” said Widdauer.

Sarah Anderson is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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