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Judo Standout Holds Family's Golden Dream

February 06, 1989|DONNA CARTER | Times Staff Writer

Tony Okada is almost as shy as he is talented, so he doesn't waste words bragging about what he does best. That is why many people, even some of his wrestling teammates at Savanna High School, don't know that he is one of America's brightest hopes to make the 1992 Olympic team--in judo.

It is no accident that Okada, 16, is one of America's elite judo athletes and an outstanding high school wrestler.

His great-grandfather first learned judo in his native Japan, the country where the sport originated. His grandfather competed in judo, but when he immigrated to Lomita, Calif., the family also began learning judo's American equivalent, wrestling.

Okada's family tree reads like a Who's Who of judo and wrestling. His uncle, George Espinoza, wrestled at Arizona State and won a gold medal in the 1977 Pan American Games. Another uncle, Kenny Okada, was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic judo team that competed in Munich, West Germany. And Okada has two cousins who wrestle at Bolsa Grande High School.

"I've been at a few family get-togethers and it is very rare that things don't erupt into the coffee table being moved and people sprawled about on the floor doing things," said Tom Caspari, Okada's wrestling coach at Savanna.

Okada acknowledges that his father has had a profound influence on his judo skills.

"I know (my father) would want me to be the first from the United States to win the Olympics in judo," Okada said.

It was the dream of his father, Ted Okada, to become an Olympian in judo. He is a former high school national champion and senior national champion. In 1964, he was one of the youngest black belts in the nation at 15. But a knee injury playing high school football ended his competitive career.

Tony has inherited the dream.

Ted, one of the premier judo coaches for juniors (18 and under) in the United States, is the instructor at Orange County Buddhist Church judo club. He has trained Tony since he was 5.

"It is what he tells me he wants," Ted said. "He knows it will sadden me (if he quits) but he also knows he must do it for himself, not because I want him to do it."

Steve Scott, head of U.S. junior development for United States Judo Incorporated, recognized as the sport's governing body by the U.S. Olympic Committee, said he doesn't believe Ted Okada lives through his son.

"While Ted is a strict father, and makes sure Tony gets to judo practice, I don't think he lives through the kid," Scott said. "It takes a pretty secure man to say, 'My son is unique. He is his own person, and I have these goals for him, but I also know it is not me doing it, it is him.' He is really proud of his kid and rightly so. He is not a judo parent, not a Little League parent. Those kids usually drop out by the time they are out of high school and they are always rebelling. And I don't see that in Tony."

When Tony was 11, he said he almost quit because "my uncles and dad and grandparents were telling me to do different things. I really didn't want to listen to anyone but my dad. Everyone's yelling at me to do one thing and another (person) is yelling the opposite."

He was starting to dislike judo, when his dad intervened.

"He talked to me and said (I should) act like I was listening to them but do what I think is best because once I get good enough, I will know my own mistakes," Tony said.

Tony has been making all the right moves, so much so that the Olympic selection committee has had its eye on him for the past two years.

He is like a football player in that he likes the contact, said Scott.

"In any fighting sport, be it judo, boxing or wrestling, you have to like to fight," Scott said. "I am not talking about in the bully-boy sense. . . . You can tell Tony enjoys the combat, the competition."

"He really, truly is a young sensation," said Patrick Burris, one of the U.S. Olympic judo coaches. "It is uncanny someone that young could have the instincts he has already for the sport. His reactions are amazing. His balance is unparalleled in this sport at this time. He is very strong for a young man. And the way he moves--the way he flows his knowledge of the sport is like an experienced veteran because he has fought in so many national and international tournaments as a young man, and quite honestly because of his uncles and father."

Tony, who has a black belt in judo, competes in 25 to 30 judo tournaments annually with the financial help of his family and USJI.

"We want to develop him as much as we can," Scott said. "We want to send him places and do things with him and spend some money on him to get this kid some opportunities he wouldn't otherwise have."

Those opportunities have included travel across the United States and beyond.

He visited Tokyo in 1987 to train with Japan's top coaches and with Yasuhiro Yamashita, 1984 gold-medalist, nine-time All-Japan champion and a national hero.

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