Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

It takes a village to raise an Olympic hopeful

by John Spiri

Contributing Writer

Shortly after Kano Jigoro (1860-1938) founded judo as a martial art by consolidating disparate jujitsu techniques in the late 1800s, he accepted an agile practitioner named Saigo Shiro (1866-1922) as one of his first acolytes.

Decades later, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (1910-98) based his first film, “Sugata Sanshiro” (1943), on Saigo. It was the story of a rebellious young fighter determined to find glory in judo. Although 17 minutes of footage was cut by government censors, “Sugata Sanshiro” (aka “Judo Saga”) was remade five times.

Then, in 1998, along came Sanshiro, the son of Hidetoshi Murao and Deborah Grow, and brother to siblings Mashu and Maya.

Sanshiro’s parents were trying to decide a name for the newborn when Hidetoshi suddenly declared to Deborah, “His name is Sanshiro.” She had some initial apprehension about the name, which she thought would be hard for her American relatives to get used to, but she came around after thinking about it a bit more. Hidetoshi seemed certain that this name was “ordained.”

Sanshiro, now 19 and a judo practitioner, has taken great strides in living up to the legacy of his name — but, as his mother assures me, “without the rebellious streak.”

“To me, Sanshiro has always been like an adult, a Japanese man in a kid’s body,” Deborah explains. “Getting up early, practicing at all hours, he never complained and never said ‘I’m tired.’ His first solid food was rice. He’s always been very serious, very Japanese.”

You shouldn’t, however, come to the simple conclusion that Sanshiro’s “Japaneseness” comes exclusively from his father. Deborah has always had a love for the country. As a kid she heard a lot about Japan from family friends who were missionaries. In high school she recalls telling them, “I want to do the Japanese sport where you throw people,” not even knowing that it was called judo. Then, before marriage, she made five trips here before moving with her family to Yokohama. She has always felt at home in Japan even in her husband’s “very Japanese” family home in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture. After mentioning that her only challenge was learning the language, she quickly adds, “Or relearning Japanese.” I ask if she is alluding to reincarnation, but Deborah just laughs at the idea.

If not for a major family decision, Sanshiro might never have hit the mats.

“In Yokohama, Sanshiro was really interested in soccer. If we had never moved to Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, he would probably have never take up judo,” Deborah says.

At 5 years old, after first experiencing judo under the tutelage of the highly respected coaches at the University of Tsukuba, which boasts one of the country’s leading judo facilities, Sanshiro publicly declared his dream to someday compete in the Olympics. That dream intensified working under former Olympian Hirotaka Okada and then national team player Takeru Sato.

Travelin’ mom

Growing up, Sanshiro cross-trained in gymnastics, rugby, swimming, aikido and, most significantly and successfully, sumo. In fifth grade he powered his way to the Ibaraki Sumo Championship, then went to the nationals to battle in the Ryogoku Kokugikan, ultimately achieving the status of “best 8” in Japan — a feat made all the more impressive by the fact he was fighting youth more than double his 50 kilograms.

“His father felt this cross-training in sumo would make him more proficient in dealing with heavier jūdōka (judo athletes), especially when fighting in the open-weight division,” Deborah says. “Hats off to his Dad. He took Sanshiro wherever he needed to go to help him improve.”

Playing sports in Japan is not only a huge endeavor for children, but a considerable commitment for parents, too. Some hesitate to let their kids get involved at all.

“Some moms point-blank refused to allow their kids to play a sport like soccer,” Deborah says. “Baseball is particularly tough. Parents have to make tremendous commitments.

“In America, you play sports by the season. So an elementary school student could conceivably play three or four sports a year. That’s much more difficult in Japan where total focus is expected.”

By sixth grade, Sanshiro had a desk drawer full of gold medals. He took his first national gold in the over-50-kg category at the Kodokan Cup for elementary school students, then snagged back-to-back first-place finishes in the under-90-kg category at Inter-High competitions. In the fall of 2018, while still in high school, Sanshiro won the silver medal at the Junior World Championship in the Bahamas, followed by his first Grand Slam outing, where he took bronze in Osaka.

“The travel alone has made the ‘judo mom’ life so enjoyable,” Deborah says. “Thanks to Sanshiro’s matches, I have been all over Japan. On top of that, I can enjoy cheering for Sanshiro with family and so many wonderful friends that I have made.”

Deborah recently went to Dusseldorf to watch Sanshiro win silver at the Judo Grand Slam, defeating two world medalists along the way. Most recently, at the Zagreb Grand Prix held in Croatia, Sanshiro placed second in the under-90-kg division, falling to Georgia’s three-time world junior champion Beka Gviniashvili. Due to such strong showings, he was chosen to represent Japan in the judo mixed-team event at the Judo World Championship to be held in Tokyo from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1.

All in the family

Athletics have always been a big deal for Deborah and Hidetoshi’s family. In Tsukuba, Hidetoshi, who played club rugby when he was young, quickly found a children’s rugby team and all three kids got involved. Thanks to that, Sanshiro’s brother, Mashu, became a rugby player. Then, when word got around that the University of Tsukuba had started a children’s judo team, Hidetoshi took Sanshiro’s sister, Maya, to try out. The two boys tagged along and all three signed up.

“I warn people: Don’t mess with our family,” Deborah says. “The children all have black belts in judo and everyone but me can play rugby, too.

“Seven days a week were devoted to sports at our house, so there was not much time to relax. Once a family member decides to follow a big dream, there will be sacrifices. For example, when Mashu was getting ready to leave home for university, Sanshiro was also getting ready to leave home after having graduated from elementary school. It was hard for me, as a mother, to see two of my children leave home at the same time — and Sanshiro was only 12! But I understand that to achieve a big dream you have to be willing to pay a big price.”

Sanshiro’s support system extends well beyond the lines of family.

“You know that saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’ Well, it takes a village to raise an aspiring Olympic athlete as well.”

Deborah recalls how other mothers would provide Sanshiro with rides to practices and matches when she couldn’t; how Shogo Hashimoto, his judo coach in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, took Sanshiro under his wing and into his house for three years; how his high school coach, Olympian Masahiro Takamatsu, has been a mentor and like another big brother to him; and how many others helped along the way.

“I consider them all family,” Deborah says.

That means a lot of fingers are crossed for Sanshiro to realize his dream and make Japan’s 2020 Olympic judo team.

Growing ranks

Sanshiro is joining the ranks of a number of mixed-race athletes rising to prominence in Japan. In 2018, Naomi Osaka grabbed the spot of the No. 1 women’s tennis player after she won the U.S. and Australian Opens. Meanwhile, basketball star Rui Hachimura was ninth overall in the 2019 NBA draft and has joined the Washington Wizards, and Abdul Hakim Sani Brown is another Olympic contender in track and field.

Japanese judo has seen its share of mixed-race athletes, including Mashu Baker and Aaron Wolf. Wolf won the 2017 world championship in the 100-kg division, while Baker won the gold medal in the 90-kg division at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

As Sanshiro rises up the judo ranks, Deborah marvels at Hidetoshi’s insight on naming the boy.

“‘Sanshiro’ was the perfect name for him,” she says.