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The Art of The Davis Judoka

Members of the UC Davis Judo Club at rest during practice.

My name is Paulo Camacho, and this is Macho Sports.

It is held three nights a week in the second floor of the UC Davis Activities and Recreational Center. Random walkers-by could take one look at the events taking place in the martial arts room, and have little comprehension as to what was going on. One thing was for certain – it looked like it hurt. But through the evident physical pain, through the endurance of the various throws and grueling drills held at practice, athletes were, no doubt, being groomed. Champions were being trained. And, most importantly, a disciplined lifestyle was being instilled. This was the UC Davis Judo Club.

Certified as an official university sports club in 2006, the Judo Club was formed in 2005 as a recreational group. Despite its humble beginnings, it gradually grew into a competitive club that, at its height in 2009, produced the second-ranked Judo team in the nation. Today, the club continues to produce some of the most talented Judokas – practitioners of Kodokan Judo – in the country. The club is taught by Sensei Harry Vincent Kendall.

Kendall, a third-degree black belt, has been teaching with the Judo Club since its inception, when a former student at his Oakland dojo offered him the job. His Judo experience dates back to when he was a child, growing up in Philadelphia. His father was a judo instructor, and subsequently picked up on it at an early age. He had been competing in tournaments up until 1989, when he suffered an athletic injury. The opportunity to teach opened up, incidentally, due to his young daughter’s troubles at school.

“She came home one day, and said that the boys were pushing [her and her friends] around, so I knew it was time to start teaching,” he said. “I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I went over to the YMCA in Japan Town. I said, ‘I will teach your Judo program for free; the only thing I want you to do is have the price low enough so that all the kids in the local community would come in.’ … that’s where I got hooked on teaching.”

The current members of the UC Davis Judo Club

In the six years since he began teaching at UC Davis, the Judo Club has attracted people from many different backgrounds. Kelli Jocoy, a 19-year-old microbiology major hoping to go to medical school, was first put on to Judo Club by a friend from Kendo Club. “I’ve always wrestled with my brother and such, so I thought [Judo Club] would be interesting,” she recalled. “From the moment I went there [a year ago], it was very fun … I’ve really enjoyed it, I continued to train over the summer, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Senior Roger Parks, the club treasurer, came to Judo Club when he was a freshman. Though he had never tried martial arts before, he was convinced to try Judo by a fraternity friend. “Judo was one of the first things [on campus] that I tried,” he recalled. “I ran into a guy at a fraternity party, and he was saying I should come out and give it a try. I met him out there on the mat, and [realized] it was a really good fit.” Through Judo Club, he has received a brown belt, along with a novice Judo State Championship in 2010.

Travis Shuler, a Senior studying Mechanical Engineering, is the current club president. As an official club officer, he mainly deals with the club’s organizational responsibilities. However, he is still an active member, participating in demonstrations and tournaments with the rest of the team. Sensei Kendall praised his commitments to the team and to the club. “When you take on an officer’s role, you train hard in addition to doing all the team management stuff,” he said of Shuler. “The amount of work he puts in is incredible.”

Shuler joined the club as a junior, looking for a new form of exercise. “I had wrestled in high school, so a lot of the mat work looked very similar,” he explained. “It looked very appealing.”

Despite his experience in athletics, Shuler admits that practices can be very challenging – especially for first-timers. “Our workouts … [are] actually a lot more physically demanding than people really recognize when they first come to the club,” he said. “In the course of [my] two years [in the club], I think there have been one or two … new people that have entirely gotten through the warm-up without having to sit out for something. It’s kind of the expectation that you need to be in really good physical shape.”

Walter Lam, a UCD Junior majoring in Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, echoed these sentiments, as he recalled his first time in the martial arts studio. “I was at the ARC one day, and I just finished lifting – went upstairs to watch what was going on,” he said. “I was watching the martial arts room, and Sensei [encouraged me to come in next practice]. I came in … and I had the workout of my life.”

At the claim that Judo Club practices tend to be grueling, Sensei Kendall light-heartedly scoffs. “The training is geared toward the level of competition,” he insists. “A lot of [my students] want to be competitors … but I don’t want them to get hurt. In order to not get hurt, there’s a certain level of conditioning that you [need to have] … Anything lower than that, and we’ll be rolling you back in a gurney, instead of coming back and having pizza and beer at Woodstocks.”

Kendall went on to say that, due to the level of training, and as a credit to the Judokas who undertake it, the club has produced two National Champions. It is because of this level of training that has put Davis on par with schools like Stanford and San Jose State – the latter of which had produced collegiate National Championship teams for 44 straight years.

Not to say that the Judo Club is all business. Sensei Kendall, in his training, also likes to keep it loose with his students before and after practice. He is a very personable man who is easy to talk to, and has a mode of presence that the students can enjoy being around. He can also be seen constantly recruiting new members – whether competitive or recreational – to the club. One of the first things I remember him saying to me was something along the lines of, “Are you coming to join us next week? You really should.”

The club plans on big things in the future – and with a dojo full of talented Judoka, Sensei Kendall sees big things for the club. Currently, the Judo Club is planning on fundraisers in the next two months, and preparing for the California Judo Inc. State Championships on the weekend of May 28. There, Kendall expects to not only see UC Davis’ reputation as the No. 2 Judo team in the nation to remain intact, but set themselves up for greater things in 2012. “Collegiate National Championships are going to be held [next March] in San Jose,” he explained. “It would be very easy for guys like Travis Shuler, Calvin Diep, Kevin Yoo […] to be, not only state champions, but I’m anticipating that we’re going to have a number of national champions next year.”

With the ambition and discipline seen in his students at the UC Davis Judo Club, there is little doubt that national championship dreams can become a reality. As it goes, their first test will come in late May – but, in the meantime, Sensei Kendall hopes to keep spreading the word about Judo.

“I think the people and students of UC Davis should see our tournaments,” Kendall insisted. “Certainly see our tournament that we’re hosting here on the 21st of May, because they’re going to have a group of guys that are going to be collegiate national champions next year.”

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