By Rebecca Smith, The Way, Incorporated
A speech delivered at US Junior Olympics awards dinner on July 21, 2001
Look at all this talent in the room tonight. If there were a fire or earthquake, judo as we know it in the United States would be wiped out!
There are times that test our courage; the first time you stepped on the mat, your first competition.
There are times that test our character: accepting wins and losses with equal measures of humility and grace.
There are times that take all our courage and character.
Four years ago, on a cold, starless October night, in a split second my life changed forever. My partner threw hard. And in that split second of reaction, something went wrong. I landed hard. Everything went black. And then I went numb.
When the assistant coach came over to check, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t feel my arms and legs. In the eternity it took for the ambulance to arrive, I lay there motionless, staring up at the lights. Tears trickled down my face. I thought, “What have I done? Would I ever walk again? Who would take care of my daughter?”
My partner knelt beside me, “Be brave, Rebecca, be brave,” she kept saying.
The EMT strapped me into a neck brace and back board and lifted me onto a stretcher. The ambulance raced to the emergency room, sirens blaring. After all the x-rays were taken, I lay strapped to a cold metal table, alone, waiting for the results.
And then, sensei walked into the room. His eyes were bright blue with relief. He took my hand and helped me sit up. That small movement held such freedom.
The shock of the fall had traumatized my spine, causing temporary paralysis, and tearing my back muscles. It took 18 months to heal.
During those long lonely winter nights of recovery, I had a lot of time to think. I looked deep inside.
Why was judo so important to me? Was it worth the risks? Was it for the right reasons?
I knew that in the big scheme of things winning a gold medal would not change my life. It would not make me rich and famous. I would not show up on the cover of the Wheaties box.
It was more than a gold medal – I was searching for my calling. I knew there had to be more than advancing my own career, more than building wealth.
It was bigger than a gold medal – I was searching for my purpose – what would make my life matter? Could I do something that would make a difference in other people’s lives?
It wasn’t just about the gold medal – it was about living with courage and character.
I began to study the Samurai of feudal Japan, drawing strength from their courage.
I learned that the word Samurai, literally means “to serve.” For over 500 years, the Samurai served as warrior knights for the nobility.
Over hundreds of years of battle, a code of honor was developed, called Bushido. “Bushi” for warrior, “do” for way. This way of the warrior centered on: courage, benevolence, and wisdom.
The Samurai believed knowledge must be assimilated in the mind and shown in the character – to know and to act are one and the same.
I began to apply these principles of courage and character to my life.
When I returned to practice I was a different person. I had a new certainty and calmness of purpose. I was doing judo for me – for my love of the sport.
Not for gold medals, not for sensei’s approval – for me.
I had to start over and learn to do techniques left-handed.
I had to overcome the bitterness of being hurt.
I had to push past discouragement and the darkness of self-doubt
As the months passed, my body and my spirit mended.
For a year and a half I healed. Through the pain and sweat and recovery I matured as an athlete and as a leader.
Every time I competed I was gripped with fear of injury.
I learned that sometimes you have to dig down deep to find your courage.
In the years that followed, I trained hard and got hurt and kept training, and I competed and won matches and lost matches and kept fighting.
Because for an athlete, the very worst thing is to know that you gave it your all, and your all was not enough.
Facing down that fear of injury and fear of failure takes courage. And that kind of courage can take you a long way in life.
The courage it took me to return to the mat and to competition is the same courage that took me away from a corporate career and brought me here to you tonight.
As you look around the room tonight you’ll see our Olympians. They are our most gifted and dedicated athletes who carry the weight of our sport on their shoulders.
Look around the room you’ll see our sensei – from the dojo struggling to stay afloat to our Olympic coaches.
Look around the room you’ll see our referees who dig deep into their own pockets and sacrifice weekends with their families to ensure the right person wins.
Go ahead, look. I’ll wait.
As you look around the room, notice who is missing. Who have we lost over the years and why?
We know each other, don’t we? We see each other at our best and at our worse, and at our most vulnerable, when we are injured, discouraged, losing. We are bonded by sweat and blood.
My story is your story. We are bound together by tradition and our common heritage of the Samurai knights. The code of Bushido has been breathed into you.
Our heritage is evidenced in the courage and honor of each competition.
I ask you – is judo in the United States on a steady decline and inevitable death? Or is it poised for rebirth and revitalization?
I ask you – can we harness the collective intellect, talent and energy in this room tonight to grow our sport?
It is up to you and to me, it is up to all of us together. It is up to us to change.
Change takes courage.
Think about your own life and your judo. Why you started judo and why you stay in our sport.
Think about what you want to share beyond the physicality of the sport, how judo can strengthen one’s character.
What will you do tomorrow, next week, next month to grow our sport?
Change takes courage.
We have three strong leaders. Sensei Tripp, Sensei Bregman, Sensei Seito. They have given us fresh hope. But strong leaders need followers. Abraham Lincoln told us long ago, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Change takes courage. You may have to dig down deep to find the courage inside you.
Most of us are never tested in a dramatic fashion. We don’t represent our country at the Olympics. We don’t ever have to make those “you bet your career” type of decisions in work or judo.
But practicing courage in the small moments, in everyday acts and decisions prepares you for the time that you will have to face down your fear.
We don’t normally think of the Samurai being afraid. But there were times when young knights would ride into battle, hearts pounding and knees trembling. And yet, they rode ahead with the brave ones. And as they fought in battle after battle, eventually their minds would settle and they would become strong, praiseworthy knights, not so different from those who were naturally brave.
And so it can be with you. Because courage is in each of you, in the strength of your character, and the quality of leadership.
We are locked into battle together. Sometimes it feels like we are battling each other.
We draw up alliances with loyalties thicker than blood and we nurse old grudges with photographic memories.
But we are locked in battle together fighting apathy, obesity and drug use.
We are locked in battle together fighting for discipline, respect and tradition.
We are locked in battle together fighting for the heart, mind and spirit of every athlete.
We are fighting to support our Olympians and every Junior Olympian who came to Louisville this weekend.
We are in battle together, aren’t we?
We have been knocked down. It will take time to heal. But as my sensei told me long ago, there is a difference between pain and injury.
You must never tap out. You must get back up and keep fighting.
Not for us, but for our young athletes who with training and dedication and desire may become Olympians one day. They are our future. We cannot disappoint them.
We have a window of opportunity opening for judo in the United States. We have missed so many opportunities.
Can we close the door on the past and open our hearts?
Can we speak with one voice and stand united?
There are issue to be resolved, compromises to be made.
But we can grow judo in the United States. It will take courage to change.
But it is possible. And it is in you.
Copyright © 2001 The Way, Incorporated.
All rights reserved.