Rena Kanokogi inspired the sports world to think differently about the notion of women in competitive sports. She was born Rena Glickman in 1935 in Brooklyn. Her family struggled financially and from 7-years-old, Rena would be finding odd jobs wherever she could. She always felt like an outsider but found a semblance of belonging among society’s so-called rejects: the hustlers and freaks of Coney Island. By a teenager, she was the head of a street girl gang called the Apaches.
One day, Rena picked up her brother’s weights and began working out at the local gym. Then one night, a neighborhood friend began teaching her a judo move he had learned, and she was immediately fascinated. She later said that she discovered that the sport helped calm her down and develop self-control. Sadly, her desires to compete in the city’s judo clubs were met by male resistance. The club owners told Rena that judo was a man’s sport and that women were too frail and weak to compete.
Not one to abandon her goals, in 1959, Rena posed as a man to enter the New York State YMCA judo championships. Her hair was short, and she wrapped tape around her breasts. She was an alternative but got to step in when a male team member was injured.
Not only did Rena prove herself as an equal, she beat every single man she fought and won a gold medal. However, she was approached by an organizer who questioned if she was a woman. After confirming that she was out of fear that her teammates would have been stripped of their title, she was forced to return the medal. “Had I said no, I don’t think women’s judo would have been in the Olympics. It instilled a feeling in me that no woman should have to go through this again,” she said.
With no options to compete in the United States, Rena went to Tokyo where she fought other female opponents. After proving her strength, she became the first woman to ever be invited to work out at the main dojo which beforehand was an exclusively male zone. It was here that she met her husband, Ryohei Kanokogi, who was a black belt in judo, karate and stick-fighting.
The duo soon returned to the United States. Being a trailblazer for women’s judo certainly didn’t come easy. Over her judo career, Rena sustained a number of injuries including a broken nose, a broken arm and fractures. She attributed these injuries to the intensity of her male opponents who were absolutely terrified of losing to a woman.
Eventually the “Mother of Judo” took a step away from competing and instead turned to teaching. The couple decided they wanted to build up the sport for women. In 1964, judo became an Olympic sport for men; Rena responded by threatening legal action if women were not treated equally and allowed to participate.
Then in 1980, Rena helped create the first Women’s World Judo Championship in New York City; she even mortgaged her own home to cover the costs. The message she gave to her students was one that she didn’t receive while growing up: “We’re going to build on what you have, because you have a lot.”
Women’s judo eventually became an Olympic demonstration sport in 1984 and then a medal sport in 1988 with Rena as the U.S. coach. She almost single-handedly got the sport to the Olympics after threatening to sue the International Olympic Committee. 1
Over the years, Rena fulfilled several achievements and was awarded numerous awards and honors. She was the first woman to become a seventh-degree black belt and was awarded with Emperor’s Award of the Rising Sun, an award bestowed on foreigners who make a positive influence on Japanese society. She earned a spot in the International Sports Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Then in August of 2009, the Brooklyn YMCA awarded her with the gold medal that was taken from her back in 1959. “The medal should never have been taken away from me,” said the 74-year-old. “But we’re righting a wrong, that’s what counts.” 2
Sadly shortly after receiving the award, Rena passed away in New York after a three-year battle with leukemia.
“Rusty was one of the greatest influences in the world of women’s sports and a person who never really received the acclaim and recognition she so richly deserved,” said Women’s Sports Foundation Founder Billie Jean King in a tribute. “Nothing thrilled Rusty more than helping others – especially the children. She said that helping a child who thinks he or she can’t do something and then showing them that they CAN DO IT, was one of the greatest feelings in her life. So many of us were touched by her generosity, dedication and unconditional friendship… Rusty Kanokogi was one of a kind, a true leader, an inspirational woman of influence and one of the most generous souls I have ever known and I know she made a difference in my life and in the lives of so many others.”3
- The Mercury News, 24 November, 2009 – “Rena Kanokogi Was Jude Pioneer”
- New York Daily News, 22 August, 2009 – “Judo Medal’s a Kick”
- Sports & Recreation Examiner, 25 November, 2009 – “1988 Olympic Judo Coach Rena Rusty Kanokogi Dies of Cancer Saturday”