By Joseph Robertia
Like many mothers, Donna Edmunds, of Sterling, was excited when her oldest son, 5-year-old Jacob, began elementary school. It was a high-water mark, of sorts, but as with many tides, not everything that washes in is positive.
Sometimes, when youngsters come together for the first time, despite the best efforts of administrators, teachers and parents, bullying can take place. In an effort to ensure her son remained safe when out of her sight, Edmunds enrolled him in a newly started Sterling Judo Club, to teach him some fundamentals of defending himself.
“At his age, it’s not very technical. It focuses a lot on how to fall forward or backward and protect your head, if someone were to push you. It teaches him moves to get out of being held down, all important things at his age, and things you’re worrying about when your kid is out on the playground,” she said.
“And it works,” Edmunds added. “I’ve seen him use it with kids trying to push him
around. He didn’t bully anyone, but he used it to prevent being bullied.”
It is stories such as these that inspired Robert Brink, of Sterling, to again take on the role of sensei, teaching classes Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Now a black belt, Brink first began judo in 1962 in Japan while serving in the Navy. Over the 50 years since then, he has taught judo and started several judo clubs in the Lower 48 and Alaska, and it was a recent communication from an old student that got him to again don his gi.
“I got an email from someone I had in my class from back in the’70s when I taught judo up at Fort Richardson. He said he was a gangly kid who got an education he never forgot from judo. The experience stayed with him the rest of his life and he now had a son he had gotten into it,” he said.
This got Brink thinking. There is no shortage of karate-based martial arts classes in the Kenai-Soldotna area, but not all parents living in Sterling can afford these classes, nor want to make the drive into town after a long day at work.
“The kids and parents who live out here needed something out here,” he said.
Networking began, an interested parent here spoke with an educator there, and so on and
so forth, and before long Brink had recruited another lifelong experienced judo practitioner, Maryanne Rogers, to help him teach. Christine Ermold, principal at Sterling Elementary, agreed to let the club use the school’s gymnasium and wrestling mats after hours.
With the instructors volunteering their skills and the school donating the gym, any parents wanting to enroll students only had to pay for a $55 annual membership to the U.S. Judo Federation, their child’s judo uniform and dojo patch and whatever belts the children earn as their skills progressed. This proved immediately popular. The first classes began Feb. 14 with about 40 students, Brink said.
Other than the close proximity and reduced cost of the classes, some parents also preferred to enroll their child in judo due to it being a “softer” martial art from karate and tae kwon do, where the major emphasis often is on striking with kicks and punches.
“I respect all the martial arts, but judo tends to be softer than some of the other forms
because it relies more on redirecting an opponent’s force, off-balancing an opponent and making use of superior leverage. It’s taking control of a bad situation with one of basically 40 different throws, and then controlling that opponent when they’re down. And the bigger they are and the harder they come, the harder they’re tossed,” Brink said.
This is a tough concept for some of the beginners to wrap their heads around, explained Brink, but the moment they wrap their arms or legs around an opponent the correct way and take them down, it starts to sink in.
“When they do that first throw, you can see it on their face. After that they start to believe in themselves and that they can do this,” he said.
This has definitely been the case with Edmunds’ son.
“He really enjoys it and wants to come back next year, and we’ll keep doing this as long as he wants to,” she said. “I like getting him involved in as many different extracurricular things as possible, but getting started in this so young will really be a good thing for him. Besides the self-defense stuff and the self-confidence that comes with that, he’s getting exercise, learning respect, which is important in this day and age, and he’s learning how to set goals and work toward them,” she said.
Edmunds was referring to the progression of belt colors, which, initially, is a driving force for the younger students, and one Brink said that senseis and parents can use to their advantage to keep children motivated.
“The belt-ranking system helps build their desire to succeed. They know exactly what that next goal is and they know if they keep attendance up and work hard, they’ll get it,” he said.
This was exactly the case May 15, when, after several months since the judo classes
began, several students had earned their progression to their first promotion from a white to a yellow belt.
“They’re all meaningful when you receive them, but there are two you never forget — your first yellow belt and your first black belt,” Brink said.
Heather Mumm, of Sterling, enrolled three of her five children in the judo classes, and she said that starting them early was important to her peace of mind as a mother.
“I was attacked when I was in college and I wish I had known something like this then to defend myself. With them starting now, as they get older, I hope it will make them more aware of their surroundings, help them identify a threat, and have a fighting chance if someone does attack them,” she said.
Mumm said that her boys have taken to the classes like fish to water, and have even begun teaching some of the moves to her two smallest children, still too young to enroll in the classes. Judo has also helped one of her sons who has been diagnosed with autism, she said.
“Initially, he was why we began these classes. We were told the judo would help him, and the other two came, too, because they liked karate movies,” she said. “It’s worked. It’s been good for him, not just the feel of wearing the uniform, which feels different compared to his regular clothes, but it has also helped with his balance, body movements and being aware of the space around him.”
Young boys are not the only ones taking the judo classes. In martial arts, girls and boys practice together, and many teens and adults have also joined the club, which Brink said he hopes to see more of in the future.
“We’re working toward having a beginner, intermediate and competition program,” he said. “We’d also like to begin initial fundraising efforts for the purchase of 40-by-40 judo mats. These would allow a higher level of training than what we can do on the current mats.”
In time, Brink said that he would like to see the club grow to a point where an experienced student breaks off and starts another judo club in the Kenai or Soldotna area. He would also like to see club members progress their skills and knowledge to the point of competing in Anchorage or even nationally.
“If we’re willing to work together for the good of our youth and all others who could benefit, it’s entirely possible to see over 100 students of all ages in our Sterling Judo Club,” he said.
To learn more about the Sterling Judo Club, call 394-0403 or 262-8753.