After sensei Jay Watts divides a green mat laid out in the commons area of Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School into four sections, he splits his youth judo class into as many groups for “randori,” or sparring.
One girl immediately stands out from the rest of the 25-person class before even one move is attempted. Not only does she have a shock of red hair, but she also wears a blue “gi” or uniform wrapped twice at the middle with an orange belt secured with a square knot, a sharp contrast to the other children wearing white gis and mostly white or yellow belts (though a couple of other orange belts, signifying advanced youth rank, can be spotted).
Once the grappling begins, however, Kylie Lager’s appearance becomes inconsequential as she begins to command attention for another reason — her skill as a judo player. She easily takes her opponents, some of them boys, down to the mat and holds them there, struggling more to keep her hair out of her eyes than she does to keep at least one of her adversary’s shoulders against the mat for the 25 seconds necessary for a win. In addition to pins, younger players can win judo matches with one throw of an opponent to his or her back or with a combination of lesser throws. Older players can also force submissions through chokes or armbars.
“I like just getting them down and saying ‘I win,’” the 10-year-old Lager said of her technique.
There was plenty of that for the class at the state championships, held March 26 in Anchorage. The team captured four state championships in both youth and adult divisions, along with five second-place finishes and three thirds.
“They did fantastic,” Watts said. “It was better than I would have hoped. ... Certain kids I thought wouldn’t do well did absolutely fantastic.”
For Lager, it was her second state title in a row, and her second time through the tournament undefeated. She said her previous experience at the state tournament made her less nervous this year, even though she “had to go against people taller than me and bigger than me.”
Her slight stature relative to other girls in the mediumweight 9- and 10-year-old division explains Lager’s fondness for “O Goshi,” a large hip throw that takes an opponent heels-over-head across Lager’s back and down to the mat backfirst. Done just right, the thrower is rewarded with a pair of satisfying sounds: the “thwhap” of her rival’s body weight smacking the mat, and the shout of “Ippon!” from the referee, signifying victory.
The throws, rough landings and hand-to-hand combat for position and balance defy the translation of the word “judo” from Japanese into “the gentle way,” a rendering Watts dislikes.
“I prefer to say ‘the easy way,’” he said. “Because when you fall, it’s not gentle. But, ‘the easy way’ just means you’re trying to defeat your opponent in the most efficient way possible.”
Watts said true experts of judo’s efficiency have a “natural ability to understand their own balance and space, and understand when somebody’s off balance.” Balance, he said, is what judo is all about.
Lager may have an innate understanding of leverage and equilibrium on the mat, but her passion for the sport has no counterweight. Her mother, Shelly, described Kylie as “a little on the tomboyish side” and as someone who has always enjoyed sports, but none like judo.
“(With) judo, she can’t get out of the car fast enough,” Shelly said. “Every practice, that’s all she talks about and ... this is the one sport she’s ever stuck with.”
And it’s that devotion — forged in just four years in the sport after a chance encounter at Nugget Mall with volunteers for Juneau School District’s Community Schools program looking to sign students up for classes — that now has Kylie trying to continue her winning ways in contests Outside. She plans a trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, at the end of the month and perhaps a regional competition in Washington or Oregon.
“If she produces some results there, we’d love to take her to junior nationals at some point,” Watts said.
Judo is a sport with an international reach. One hundred ninety-nine countries are members of the International Judo Federation, the sport’s global governing body, and judo has been an Olympic sport since 1964. Women’s judo joined the Olympics in 1992, and international competitions take place throughout the year.
Even if Kylie doesn’t become a national- or international-level competitor, her mother said she is learning abilities which will last a lifetime.
“Seeing my daughter out there with these boys and being the size she is and being the top of her class, I’m very proud of her,” Shelly said. “She’ll be able to take these skills when she’s getting older and ... if she ever had to defend herself, I feel for the other person.”
Watts’ judo class is winding down for the current school year, but for more information about the program when it resumes in September, contact Juneau Community Schools at 780-2073 or visit http://www.juneauschools.org/district/community-schools.
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