NEW YORK – A street in New York City has been named after the late Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi, an American woman known as the “mother of women’s judo,” for her efforts to make the sport an Olympic event.
A ceremony was held Sunday and attended by her family, local council members and judo officials to commemorate the naming of the street “Rena ‘Rusty’ Kanokogi Way” in Brooklyn, where Kanokogi was born.
“My wife worked so hard during a time when people said ‘If a woman does judo, she won’t be able to have children,’ by saying ‘If I fight, women will be able to compete in other sports,’ ” her husband and fellow former judoka Ryohei Kanokogi, 81, said. “She’s probably happy.”
Their 53-year-old daughter Jean Kanokogi, who was herself a member of the U.S. national team her mother coached, said, “We are very proud.”
“This is a wonderful way to memorialize her forever,” she added.
Born in Brooklyn, Kanokogi practiced the sport with men in the city but was prohibited from entering competitions.
When she tried to enter the YMCA New York state championships in 1959, Kanokogi cut her hair short and taped her chest to disguise herself as a man. She won the championship for her team in the final match, but conceded her victory was invalid and handed over her medals once officials discovered her gender.
In 1962, she moved to Japan to practice at the Kodokan, considered judo’s world headquarters, where she met her future husband.
Kanokogi later turned to coaching and made efforts to finance the first women’s judo world championships in New York in 1980.
She lobbied for judo to debut as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and saw women’s judo become an official event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Increased female participation in the sport has been noticeable in the United States in recent years, with Kayla Harrison winning the first gold medal for the country at the 2012 London Olympics.
“She is an amazing pioneer of women’s judo,” Keith Bryant, CEO of USA Judo, said at the ceremony. “Her legacy still lives on today.”
Kanokogi was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, by the Japanese government in November 2008.
She died in 2009 at the age of 74 from multiple myeloma.