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Gary Smith
March 24, 1986
She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo
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March 24, 1986

Rumbling With Rusty

She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo

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One evening she went to a party in the kimono and high platform shoes that Japanese women traditionally wear. Unaccustomed to high heels, she pitched over backward and fell through a doorway. She left Japan swaggering like a samurai—but once back in America, she had to give up her sword, though, says Appelbaum, "There's no question that she was the best woman judo player in the world."

A small, powerful Japanese man named Ryohei Kanokogi, a black belt in judo, karate and stick-fighting who had met her in Japan, moved to New York to teach judo and began to date her. She broke her hand beating up a woman in a barroom bathroom for making a disparaging remark about the Japanese, and knew she had found her man when instead of scolding her he advised, "When you punch head, always wrap handkerchief around hand."

He married her in 1964, before a Buddhist priest in New York City, and Rusty was soon doing her judo exercises in a maternity ward. Ryohei was perfect for her. He could cook and sew and stay remarkably calm when his wife did crazy things. Ryohei could nod off in his easy chair while Rusty was storming around the house: "My biggest fear," she says, "is that he could be dead for a week before I'd notice."

She was now a full-time instructor and coach, the years of her prime slipping away. When the first women's nationals were finally held in Phoenix in 1974, 15 months from her 40th birthday, she dropped 85 pounds in 13 weeks to compete in the 166-pound division, but with 2½ hours left to weigh in, was still seven pounds over. On a 100° day, she pulled three rubber suits and two sweatsuits over her body, turned on the sink and shower hot-water faucets and began running in place in the steam, spitting furiously as she counted to a million. She made the weight and promptly doubled up with muscle cramps and diarrhea. As if in a hallucinogenic dream, she stepped onto the mat for the first round and began to fight, then dropped to her knees and spat up blood. A doctor rushed to the mat. "If you continue, you'd better win in the next 30 seconds," he informed her, "because you're going to die."

Don't die, Kanokogi. If you die you've lost, because they'll think you are weak. If you die, they'll think you're just a woman.

She didn't die, although the doctor at the hospital mentioned that she might have suffered a minor heart attack (she hadn't). "Wow!" people said to her now that she was thin. "You look great." She found herself standing before the mirror primping, patting her hair, holding up dresses. Then she looked into herself. "Screw this," she said and headed for the potato chips. Being large gave her a feeling of strength.

Her strength needed new release now that time had pulled the mat from under her. Why not take on the entire officialdom of judo and amateur sports, the men who had throttled her career and possibly the hopes of every woman judo player who would follow her?

She had already raised so much dust in New York judo meetings that the Japanese-Americans running city competitions had asked her husband to fulfill his duty and gag her. Now she trundled into national meetings wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and Donald Duck socks, carrying judo rule books, Roberts Rules of Order and minutes from the last 10 years of meetings. She would plop down in the first row, feel the cringe that rippled through the room, turn on her tape recorder and thunder whenever an issue affecting women's judo was brushed aside. Over the years, her voice had become deeper and deeper from barking instructions to the students she coached. Telephone operators had taken to calling her sir.

She was always hawking posters, pins, towels and raffle tickets to scrape up funds for overseas competitions of the American national women's team, which had been formed at her prodding and of which she was coach. She roared at women officials who acted like ladies while ladies' judo was being harpooned. "Men and women were physically afraid of me," she says. "I was above resorting to that—I think."

She took courage from visits with her aunt, a brazen woman, like Rusty, whose own brilliance as an artist had been ignored until she was nearly 50 because of her sex, because of her genre—abstract expressionism—and because she happened to marry the giant of American abstract art, Jackson Pollock. "Lee was the first person who ever gave me credit for all I had come up through, all I had fought against," Kanokogi says. "She reinforced me."

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