The Road to Ninth Degree Rank in Judo by Bonnie Korte

I wrote the following six points and paragraph several months ago when I was asked to write about women’s Judo and the USJA. I wanted to give some forgotten background history on early women’s Judo. Now as the USJA’s first woman to be promoted to Ninth Degree, I feel it is important for our women and girls to realize that they can reach their Judo dreams just as I did. Did I dream of Ninth Degree? Never! Shodan? Yes. But I DID DREAM of standing on national/international winners’ podiums and I made it. And the experiences, travel, worldwide friends gained and the good memories were extra pluses. I also gained an understanding of what an athlete goes through physically, mentally and psychologically; but I only realized it after I was no longer competing and had a chance to look back.

So here is the road I took.

The USJA and its clubs have always had an emphasis on Judo participation by women and girls.

  • First Women’s Shiai Nationals—1972
  • First Presidential Conference on Women’s Judo—1973
  • Target ’76—Nine-Week Training Camp—1973; first international shiai training open to men and women
  • International Team to Europe—1974; first team to include both men and women athletes, with the two US women fighting exhibition matches at the Men’s Pre-Worlds (Vienna) and placing at the Women’s British Opens (London), equivalent at the time to a women’s world championships
  • Friendship Team to South Africa—1979; full teams for both men and women

These firsts were unparalleled in US and world Judo. National and international Judo woke up to the importance of women to the Sport. Along with this, the USJA brought litigation against the archaic rules and practices that had characterized women’s/girls’ Judo since it was originally introduced to the US—segregated classes for men and women; only-kata events for women in competition, eventually allowed in local/national events; different rank and competition requirements for men and women; “the white stripe” belt designation for women only; no allowance for women/girls to shiai in local/national events in the US; funding for men’s teams but none for the women’s; lack of women referees/judges officiating at competitions for men/women/children; athletes limited to joining only certain Judo organizations; no opportunities for women to serve as coaches nor on national committees and boards.

I started Judo in 1963 when women’s Judo was in its infancy. Few of you have experienced the blasé attitude throughout the world toward women fully participating in our sport at that time. Fortunately, I became a member of the United States Judo Association (USJA), actually of its predecessor the Armed Forces Judo Association (AFJA) in 1967. The founders of the USJA, and luckily many of its club instructors, truly supported women in Judo. I feel that if I had not experienced this backing, I would not be the first woman in the USJA to be promoted to Ninth Degree.

True, my goal in Judo was set in 1964 while watching the 30-second TV coverage of Judo in the Olympics as an exhibition sport. This goal determined my attitude for my Judo career. Competing was a necessary evil. I felt the exhilaration when accepting my medals; but I enjoyed the training more. After about ten years I started my not-for-profit club, Bon-Cal, and became my own coach. “That is ridiculous. No one does that!”—you might say; but I did not want to leave the area, nor be claimed by anyone. So, that required me to run; weight train; develop training drills and set-up a continuing “solo” regimen for success over a number of years. A post in my dojo became a devoted training partner when there was no one else on the mat to move around with before and after classes. I usually worked out with a small group of young blackbelts twice a week. And then there was kata—“a competitor doing Kata”—crazy!  felt Kata made me take apart my techniques—they had to work when being done slowly. Since my   partner lived 50 miles away, travelling twice a week was the norm. I also refereed at competitions since I was told I had to decide between competing locally or refereeing. I chose being a referee because there were no women refereeing in Missouri and southern Illinois.

Feeling that I needed varied input in my Judo, I added Judo camps as a resource. Saving up money and time-off from college and work was necessary for a least two Judo camps a year which gave me exposure and material to practice until the next camp. I was the only woman who attended a nine-week training camp to transition me to an international player. In 1972 national competitions for women were becoming a reality so I had to up my preparation with rising hopes for the international competitive mat. It all paid off with national/competitive medals and travel to other countries. It was self-funded except what was sponsored by Camp Olympus—1974 Team to Europe, 1979 Team to South Africa. I was Team Captain on four women’s teams to Europe and women’s Coach/Player for the women who were on the team to South Africa.

I rounded out my Judo experience by serving on committees, volunteer work, giving clinics and now serving as a member of the USJA Board. When it came to promotions, I made sure I met all requirements—points, time-in-grade, higher skill attained for each level and I took the Black Belt test “from cradle to grave” six times, first page to the last. And, I waited until I was told by USJA high-ranking Black Belts, “It’s time you get ready to go to your next rank. You know how to dance!” I trusted their judgment.

How do you become a Ninth Degree in Judo—working, working and more work and staying with the Sport for a lifetime—whether you are a woman or a man!

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