USF’s Judo Club is more than martial arts

USF's Judo Club meets three times each week where judokas practice sparring, self-defense and discipline.  PHOTO COURTESY OF USF JUDO CLUB

The sound of bodies hitting the mats echo throughout the USF Campus Recreation Center. The rhythmic “thwap” cuts through the sound of whistles and buzzers.

In REC 101, Judo Club President Lance Ehl meets with his fellow judokas — practitioners of judo — for their practice sessions three times a week.

Each session is led by a Sensei. In this case, Sensei Russ, a veteran with more than 30 years of experience, leads his judokas in an intense two-hour session filled with sparring, throwing and lots of repetition.

Ehl holds a black belt in judo. With more than 17 years of experience, he is nothing short of an expert.

“I was kind of, for lack of a better word, indoctrinated since I was a toddler,” he said. “I started judo when I was 6 years old.”

Ever since Ehl joined the Judo Club, he feels he has become a part of an extended family and he is proud to continue the club’s legacy as club president.

“This is only my second semester as the president here…[the Judo Club] has been around for a better part of 10 years now,” Ehl said. “I’m happy to be in the next generation to keep it going.”

When Ehl originally came to the USF Judo Club, he instantly felt a connection to the club as he recognized his old sensei from when he was a beginner.

“I actually knew the head instructor here from when I was 6 years old,” Ehl said. “I came to this school and I looked into the club and surprise, here he is as the head instructor for the class…It was kind of a neat coming-of-age feeling for me to be here now as an adult.”

Over the years, Ehl has worked with some legendary judokas who have gone down in judo history. His first instructor is a famous sensei who has gone on to train some of the best judokas.

“My first instructor’s name is Yamata. He is now the national coach for Japan’s women’s team. He is kind of a living legend in the judo community,” he said. “He and his wife are very, very big in the judo community.”

Yamata was also a sensei to Shinjoro Sasaki, a prestigious judoka and one of Ehl’s sparring partners that traveled from Japan to practice judo in Florida.

“One of the guys that came over is named Shinjoro Sasaki and he was an all-Japan champion,” Ehl said. “I trained with him for a year and a half…his technique is just amazing.”

According to Ehl, judo is currently one of the most popular sports in the world and has an extensive history dating back to the 19th century.

“One of the things most people are surprised with is [judo] is one of the biggest sports phenomena in the world,” Ehl said. “It’s not quite up there with soccer, but you can go to any country and you can find people [who practice judo].”

The sport's popularity stemmed from its evolution from jiu-jitsu, a similar martial art used by the Japanese as a form of hand-to-hand combat. The pioneer of judo, Jigoro Kano, wanted to streamline jiu-jitsu and make the practice more accessible to all people.

As a result, judo, which translates to “the gentle way,” was born.

“Judo is really aimed at not just giving you a method to hurt somebody,” Ehl said. “It’s a philosophy of mutual respect and benefit. People don’t really have to be super athletic to come into judo.”

Because of judo’s philosophy of being open to all people, no matter their skill level, the judo club is very accepting of newer members and keeps the throwing and flipping at a minimum — at least for the beginning of the semester.

“It starts out simple. You’re not going to get picked up and thrown over somebody’s head your first week here,” Ehl said. “We try not to just throw people in over their heads.”

One of the newer members to the club is Kaylie Johnson, a sophomore who has been practicing judo for a little over a week. She has a history with other martial arts, however, she fell right into judo.

“When I was younger, I used to do karate,” she said. “I looked up all the martial arts and judo just seemed right to me.”

Another rookie judoka is Yoonus Khan, who has been with the Judo Club for about two weeks. Khan is interested in the self-defense aspect of judo in relation to his future career.

“A friend referred me actually. He told me that the senseis are really incredible so I wanted to check it out,” he said. “I want to be a law enforcement officer so I want to know the basics on how to throw.”

He was relieved to discover that the club is accepting of newcomers looking to hone their judo skills.

“It’s definitely fun, they don’t scare you away,” he said. “So far it’s been really welcoming.”

The Judo Club has a balance of beginners and advanced judokas, with a wide range of belt-holders. Sensei Russ encourages the more advanced judokas to spar and guide the beginners throughout the practice sessions. This method allows for rookies to learn the ropes and for veterans to further hone their skills, ensuring that each member has something to take away from each practice session.

The club also attends tournaments throughout the semester, which allows for judokas to test their skills by competing with other high-level judokas from other dojos.

“We try and get in two [competitions] a semester,” Ehl said. “The one we are looking at now is Feb. 9th. We’re looking to have six or seven people going to compete.”

As a sport growing exponentially in popularity, Ehl and the Judo Club are always looking for new members to join. He explains that it is much more than a sport and that it provides a sense of discipline.

“It is one of the best things that you can do for your body and your mind,” Ehl said. “Academically, it has helped me immensely. Having an outlet to put physical energy into and having some manner of discipline with it…It’s almost meditative afterward. You can come in with a bad mood and you are almost guaranteed to leave in a significantly better mood.”