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
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."
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.
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."