Rumbling with Rusty

She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo
She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo
March 24, 1986

Don't blink, Kanokogi. If you blink, you push the water in your eyes into a droplet that must roll down your cheek as a tear.

Don't listen. If you listen, you hear the words they are saying to wound you and draw out the tear.

Don't twitch. Don't let them see the tic that always begins under your left eye when your mind is at war with your instincts.

Don't cry, Kanokogi. If you cry, you've lost, because they'll think you are weak. If you cry, you are a woman.

Tough, tough, TOUGH. Keep the pain. They'll pay for this later. Keep it, keep it, KEEP IT. . . .

This, during wars on judo mats and in meeting rooms for the last 30 years, is what occurs inside the head of Rusty Kanokogi, a deep-voiced, short-haired, 225-pound fifth-degree black belt, who has broken knuckles, her nose, an arm and a foot and had 20 fractured toes; who has dislocated one shoulder, both collarbones and a hundred egos in order to make the world a better place for judo.

Rusty Kanokogi is a 50-year-old Jewish mother from Brooklyn.

What kind of a woman would do leg squats on the D train from Brooklyn to Manhattan each morning?

Or mistake an innocent Japanese university student for a pervert on a dance floor and pinch his rear end so hard he fled into the night?

Or rant and rumble until she had almost singlehandedly created the women's judo world championships and bullied women's judo into the Olympics?

"A classic maniac," one of her judo students calls her.

"A whirlwind," she calls herself.

"A pain in the ass," one official says, speaking for most of the American judo establishment.

Rusty Kanokogi, U.S. judo's highest-ranked female, is the wife of the Japanese martial-arts expert you once saw on TV commercials kicking suitcases for Samsonite and karate-chopping limes for Hai Karate; together, they are perhaps the highest-ranking judo couple in the world. She is the niece of the late Lee Krasner Pollock, one of the most acclaimed female painters in American history. How many colors, how many inspired brushstrokes would her aunt have needed to paint Kanokogi's life—from a childhood on Coney Island spent among carnival freaks like Milo the Mule Face Boy through an adolescence as a gang leader dodging zip-gun bullets to a mellow adulthood of slamming bodies to the floor and threatening court action against the International Olympic Committee, the National Sports Festival and ABC-TV.

She hikes up her pant legs a few moments before she must change clothes and hurry off to another function. "Are there hairs stickin' outta my legs?" she asks. "Will they stick outta my nylons?"

Her visitor admits he isn't sure.

"Ah, whadda I care! They got better things to do than to look at my legs."

Kanokogi gazes down fondly at her bulbous, size 10½ EEE feet. "Lookit this little left toe—broken 13 times," she says. "Lookit the fourth right one—it does 180 degrees. Ah, what the hell! Toes are insignificant."

Could a woman enter a world where the clothes, the gestures, the lingo and the instincts were all men's and carve a place if she didn't learn to dress and talk and laugh and gesture like them? Was the piece of self you bartered worth what you gained? And which became your home during a storm—the place that you abandoned, or the one on whose front door you were pounding? Everywhere around her, women were struggling with these questions, trying to arrange some truce between the forces inside them and those loose in the air. But in judo it is an axiom that any commitment of muscle and mind must be total commitment—no thrust can be diluted by compromise. You cannot simply imitate men—you have to do everything they do, better. To compete, Kanokogi changed clothes in closets, flattened her breasts with Ace bandages and stared stone-faced when bones in her body snapped. She stomped into meetings of U.S. judo officials wearing a stopwatch and pen and tape recorder around her neck instead of jewelry, pants instead of a skirt, and screamed louder and longer than any of them.

And then she went home, sighed heavily, turned on Walt Disney and sobbed like a baby over Bambi.

Don't all pioneers have to be radicals? Don't all those who change society's perspectives have to lack perspective? Kanokogi could not have hoisted women's judo onto her shoulders and run with it if she had stopped to mull over the questions other women were pondering. She felt them shake her, and kept moving—women who followed her would have the luxury of pausing and considering.

When she learned during the '84 Olympics that the IOC had rejected women's judo for the '88 Games, every function in her body seemed to stop—the cause she had given her life to, extinguished. "It was like somebody was dead and I couldn't cry," she says. "Then, step by step, I could almost begin to hear the music to Jaws in my head. Da-da . . . da-da . . . DA-DA . . . DA-DA, DA-DA. . . . What should I do? Take one of the IOC members and put him in an armlock? Go on a hunger strike? But I could stop eating for a year and no one would notice the difference. For the first time in my life I was thinking terrorist thoughts. Then it hit me. My god, this is L.A.! The American Civil Liberties Union is here. . . . Sue the bastards. Get 'em!"

At 6 a.m., having dialed judo officials and the ACLU all night, she finally got hold of a janitor at the ACLU offices who couldn't comprehend that the world was about to end.

"They come in at nine, Ma'am," he said.

"Can't you give me a home number?" she bellowed. "This is an emergency! What would you do if the building was on fire?"

"Get out."

The classic maniac hung up, thought of someone else to awaken and began dialing and shouting again. "When will they stop trying to hold us back?" she kept asking herself. "When?"

When had man ever made room for woman in his world, unless her activity celebrated what he idealized in her—her grace, her litheness, her effervescence, her legs? Women's gymnastics and synchronized swimming, even tennis and basketball, evoked some or all of these. Nothing jiggled, no one flitted or giggled in judo. What trace of those things for which a man depended upon a woman could be found in a female in a baggy, rumpled uniform knocking the legs out from under another, slamming her to the floor, leaping on her and applying a headlock?

From the start, the battlefield Kanokogi entered was mined with myths: Full contact encourages lesbianism, hard impact creates breast cancer, strenuous workouts damage the reproductive organs. You couldn't rouge or perfume that kind of opposition away. You needed someone who would hurl words and fists and court injunctions, someone half lip-buster, half filibuster, a short-haired, deep-voiced, 225-pound, fifth-degree black belt and a Jewish mother from Brooklyn. You needed Don't-Blink, Don't-Twitch, Don't-Cry Kanokogi.

Rusty Kanokogi was once a little girl named Rena Glickman who grew up among the freaks and barkers and hustlers on Coney Island, where her mother sold hot dogs. Her father, a silent man, tended bar at a club Al Capone was said to frequent, but often he did not work. He collected what little money the family had, tipped his hat politely to the neighbors, lost it all at the racetrack and tipped his hat politely to the neighbors when he returned. "Such a gentleman!" they used to say. Kanokogi remembers little of him except the ketchup bottle that hit her during a battle between him and her mother. At 51 he was found dead of a heart attack on the steps of a Coney Island subway station with 51¢ in his pocket.

Kanokogi's mother was one of the people life uses and crumples without ever noticing, like the mustard-stained napkins left to flutter in the wind in front of her hot dog stand. She entered a hospital for a gallbladder operation and came out with a lifelong addiction to Pantopon, a pharmaceutical derivative of opium. She left the boardwalk for a job in a candy factory, mangled one of her hands in a machine and was laid off. At 55, back on the boardwalk, she was setting up wooden milk bottles for 16-year-olds to knock over with hard balls, getting her fingers crushed when she didn't pull them away quickly enough.

Mrs. Glickman's own pain so monopolized her that she had little time for her daughter's. "Go bang your head on the wall," she told Rena when the child's stomach ached. Once, abandoned by her only brother when he was supposed to take her to the 1939 World's Fair, she banged her head on a wall until it bled.

She looked for homes elsewhere, spending her days with friends on the boardwalk or with Milo the Mule Face Boy, the freak with the deformed jaw who always sang Let Me Call You Sweetheart to her; or Albert Alberta, the hermaphrodite; or the Pinheads, a family of little people with pointed heads and squeaky voices. "The Pinheads were my favorites," she says. "So sweet and kind to me. They weren't normal, but they all stuck together, and I'd never seen that before." She joined the Jehovah's Witnesses for two days, and then her father yanked her out by the hair.

From age seven she was working at any odd job she could find—peeling potatoes for french fries at a concession stand, stitching names on souvenir hats, barking "Park here, buddy," at car lots, selling confetti or ice water to people at the amusement park. She and some friends formed the Captain Marvel Club. Wearing red towels as capes and gold crepe paper around their heads, they would sneak up on perverts and winos who would hide beneath the boardwalk and stare through the cracks up women's dresses, then flash their Captain Marvel cards and chase them away.

When Luna Park, one of the amusement centers at Coney Island, was destroyed by fire, Rena (now nicknamed Rusty after a mutt who lived down the block) and her friends formed another club that met daily amid the rats and stagnant puddles in the underground tunnel of a defunct ride called the Catacombs. One day she decided to kill herself with a rat-poison sandwich, stopping only when a girlfriend threatened to feed whatever was left to Rusty's dog. Later, when her dog died and a girl stepped on its grave. Rusty punched the girl's teeth out. She attached ropes to the charred beams of the park and swung from one burned-out building to the next. Everything became a dare, a test of strength.

Weakness troubled Rusty. She had come into adolescence among carnival-goers who sneered at the deformed, con men who preyed on the vulnerable, a family that scoffed at the soft. "Be more ladylike," people admonished her, but the only lady she knew well was the crumpled woman amid the fluttering napkins at the hot dog stand. The world had worked out a formula before she had arrived—to be female and to be Jewish was to be weak.

Her hero was her brother, Charles, who spent hours squeezing hand grips and doing push-ups and then admiring his body in the mirror. He didn't take any guff from anybody. He joined the Marines and became a New York housing cop after catching hand-grenade shrapnel in his knee in the Middle East. Rusty began to use her brother's exercising gadgets and was becoming broader and stronger than the other girls. She wore his combat boots and Marine jacket to school and strapped his bayonet, painted with Mercurochrome to look bloodstained, on her leg beneath her pants. She became the leader of the Apaches, a gang of girls who tied back their hair, wore black pegged pants and black-and-chartreuse satin jackets and smeared their skin with Vaseline to prepare for street fights. Once, when her gang chickened out of a brawl against an all-black girls' gang, Rusty took them on herself, held her own until the cops broke it up and then beat up her Apaches for bailing out. She kept coming home in bandages and stitches and casts. If the gash was deep enough, her mother became frightened and laid comforting hands on her—and that made any wound worth the pain.

She wanted to lift weights at the YMCA but was told no women were allowed. She felt herself drifting between two harbors, unable to dock at either, resented by the girls in dresses and ribbons for rejecting them and by the boys for trying to force herself upon them. Now it was too late to turn back; she had left no markers to show the path home. She plunged on, pumping bus-stop signs, concrete bases and all, trying to rip apart telephone books, living for the moments when the boys picked her first in playground games and weak children asked her to walk them home for protection. If someone showed her kindness, she became his or her bodyguard for life.

Her self-worth now came from being the hunter, the protector, not the soother or nurturer. She got a 12-stitch knife wound on her wrist while preventing an armed robbery in a restaurant. She jumped in between a sailor and a soldier brawling at a hotel dance and was pitched off a balcony, suffering a badly sprained back that still pains her today.

She didn't enjoy dating men because they wanted her to be weak. Then one night, when she was 18, she made a midnight dash to Elkton, Md. and married a man on impulse, returning to Brooklyn to live in a rented apartment. He spent what little money they had on liquor, never even tipping his hat to the neighbors.

Strange feelings came over her as she became pregnant with her first child. Soon there would be something small and fragile in her arms—it would be O.K. to be soft now, to finally let go and be like other women. Part of her felt afraid, part of her relieved. During her week in the hospital and three agonizing days in labor, no one—not her mother, not her husband—visited or called her. "He was probably off somewhere, bombed," she says. "I said to myself, 'See? Don't be soft. This world is tough. Stay tough. The hell with everybody!' I asked the doctor to bring me divorce papers."

A full-time job, as a switchboard operator for a garment-district sweatshop in Manhattan, and a baby were not enough to exhaust her. One night in 1955, a man she knew showed her a move he had learned in a judo class at a nearby YMCA. He was 20 pounds lighter than Kanokogi, yet he tossed her effortlessly. "Wow!" she thought. "How could I have missed out on this?"

She talked the judo instructor into letting her join his class of 40 men. "I didn't go for self-defense," she says. "I did it to calm down." She was the first one there and the last to leave, a big-boned, 160-pound, 20-year-old woman who burst out of the broom closet where she changed clothes and shocked the men with her aggression. This was what she had been searching for since the Apaches busted up, a place where people worked and laughed, fought and were close just like a real family, and spoke a private lingo more mysterious than any jargon of the gang or the Catacombs—Hey, man, dey's real Japanese woids. A place where she could release the strength and toughness she had been stoking all her life.

On the subway platform, waiting for her train to work each morning, she pressed her hands against the billboard and thrust, practicing a throw called O-uchi-gari. Then she would turn upon the garbage, practicing a foot sweep called De-ashi-harai on startled juice containers. On the train she did squats and strangled the poles.

She stopped exercising long enough one day to notice a pervert exposing himself on the train. She drove her knee into his chin, pinned his arm behind his back, jerked the emergency stop cord and took him to the police station still unzippered. One evening during a workout a loud crack! resounded through the gymnasium. Kanokogi's right arm hung at her side like a piece of meat, her collarbone dislocated. Don't blink, Kanokogi. Keep the pain, keep it. "I was one of the boys," she says. "How could I cry?" Moments later there was another crack! Her sparring partner, worrying about her, had lost his concentration and got his jaw broken competing against his next opponent, and now he howled unashamedly. Kanokogi drove the 45 minutes to the hospital, he screaming all the way, she biting back the scream and reaching across her body with her good arm to shift gears.

"God, she had brass!" says Mel Appelbaum, one of her former workout partners, who was then a first-degree black belt. "She'd bomb you away. All of a sudden you'd be flying, thinking, 'What happened? Did I slip on a banana peel?' She kicked a lot of guys' butts, and they resented it."

One man who lost to her spread the whisper that she wasn't really a woman. "I put the choke on him, and when he tapped the mat [a signal of surrender] I held on until he was convulsing," she recalls.

Women were more confused by her than men. A handful of women in the city were practicing a form of judo called kata, going through the motions but not daring actual combat. Kanokogi visited one such class and threw the instructor so hard she knocked her out. The next time she showed up, the instructor flicked off the lights and called off the class.

By her third year in judo, Kanokogi was winning half of her interclub matches against men, and headlines calling her FEMALE AMAZON and LADY MARINE began to appear. She entered the New York State YMCA championships, cut her hair even shorter, Ace-bandaged her breasts flat to look like a male and won her weight division. Word leaked out. Her victories were canceled, her medal taken away. Officials of the AAU national championships quickly inserted the word "male" in the event title to eliminate her. "I started getting mad," she says.

Her judo career snuffed in America because of her sex, Rusty dropped off her son at her mother's house in 1962 and flew to the mecca of judo, the Kodokan, in Tokyo. After she had spent a week terrorizing Japanese women in an auxiliary dojo (judo gym), the masters invited her to become the first woman ever to work out in the main dojo with the men. She practiced nine hours a day, caught cuffs in the ear that began to separate her lobe from her skull and a shot that produced a blood clot in her calf that caused it to swell as thick as her thigh. She wrapped it in clay and bandages that kept unraveling behind her and, like some crazed mummy, kept stalking back for more.

One evening she went to a party in the kimono and high platform shoes that Japanese women traditionally wear. Unaccustomed to high heels, she pitched over backward and fell through a doorway. She left Japan swaggering like a samurai—but once back in America, she had to give up her sword, though, says Appelbaum, "There's no question that she was the best woman judo player in the world."

A small, powerful Japanese man named Ryohei Kanokogi, a black belt in judo, karate and stick-fighting who had met her in Japan, moved to New York to teach judo and began to date her. She broke her hand beating up a woman in a barroom bathroom for making a disparaging remark about the Japanese, and knew she had found her man when instead of scolding her he advised, "When you punch head, always wrap handkerchief around hand."

He married her in 1964, before a Buddhist priest in New York City, and Rusty was soon doing her judo exercises in a maternity ward. Ryohei was perfect for her. He could cook and sew and stay remarkably calm when his wife did crazy things. Ryohei could nod off in his easy chair while Rusty was storming around the house: "My biggest fear," she says, "is that he could be dead for a week before I'd notice."

She was now a full-time instructor and coach, the years of her prime slipping away. When the first women's nationals were finally held in Phoenix in 1974, 15 months from her 40th birthday, she dropped 85 pounds in 13 weeks to compete in the 166-pound division, but with 2½ hours left to weigh in, was still seven pounds over. On a 100° day, she pulled three rubber suits and two sweatsuits over her body, turned on the sink and shower hot-water faucets and began running in place in the steam, spitting furiously as she counted to a million. She made the weight and promptly doubled up with muscle cramps and diarrhea. As if in a hallucinogenic dream, she stepped onto the mat for the first round and began to fight, then dropped to her knees and spat up blood. A doctor rushed to the mat. "If you continue, you'd better win in the next 30 seconds," he informed her, "because you're going to die."

Don't die, Kanokogi. If you die you've lost, because they'll think you are weak. If you die, they'll think you're just a woman.

She didn't die, although the doctor at the hospital mentioned that she might have suffered a minor heart attack (she hadn't). "Wow!" people said to her now that she was thin. "You look great." She found herself standing before the mirror primping, patting her hair, holding up dresses. Then she looked into herself. "Screw this," she said and headed for the potato chips. Being large gave her a feeling of strength.

Her strength needed new release now that time had pulled the mat from under her. Why not take on the entire officialdom of judo and amateur sports, the men who had throttled her career and possibly the hopes of every woman judo player who would follow her?

She had already raised so much dust in New York judo meetings that the Japanese-Americans running city competitions had asked her husband to fulfill his duty and gag her. Now she trundled into national meetings wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and Donald Duck socks, carrying judo rule books, Roberts Rules of Order and minutes from the last 10 years of meetings. She would plop down in the first row, feel the cringe that rippled through the room, turn on her tape recorder and thunder whenever an issue affecting women's judo was brushed aside. Over the years, her voice had become deeper and deeper from barking instructions to the students she coached. Telephone operators had taken to calling her sir.

She was always hawking posters, pins, towels and raffle tickets to scrape up funds for overseas competitions of the American national women's team, which had been formed at her prodding and of which she was coach. She roared at women officials who acted like ladies while ladies' judo was being harpooned. "Men and women were physically afraid of me," she says. "I was above resorting to that—I think."

She took courage from visits with her aunt, a brazen woman, like Rusty, whose own brilliance as an artist had been ignored until she was nearly 50 because of her sex, because of her genre—abstract expressionism—and because she happened to marry the giant of American abstract art, Jackson Pollock. "Lee was the first person who ever gave me credit for all I had come up through, all I had fought against," Kanokogi says. "She reinforced me."

Her heavyweight battles began with the '77 Maccabiah Games, when she threatened to get a court injunction that would prevent the entire U.S. delegation from participating unless she, as coach, and three American women players were allowed to compete. Finally, they were permitted to participate—at their own expense. She tried to smuggle her sport into the '80 Olympics and was told that women's judo had to have a world championship first. O.K., I'll have one, Kanokogi decided. She needed a $50,000 guarantee to get American AAU backing—and a brain transplant for even considering it, she was told—and the showdown came with her pointing fingers around the AAU meeting room, red-faced with rage, wildly waving two envelopes she said contained sponsors' guarantees for the $50,000.

"Show us," they demanded.

"What do you want me to do, carry $50,000 in cash around?" she bellowed. "If you turn this down, women's judo will die and it will be on all of your consciences."

"Did I actually have the 50 grand?" she says today. "Who knows?"

After Kanokogi signed a form saying she would be responsible for any litigation or debts, the AAU grudgingly agreed to sanction it in 1980. With an overhead of $180,000 to stage the event at the Felt Forum in New York, she was risking bankruptcy and her house for a sport few even knew existed. For nine months she was on the telephone from dawn to midnight to raise money. She charged $25,000 on her American Express card, had a friend risk her job to send messages all over the world on her company's Telex, lured friends to her house and held them hostage until they had typed a couple of dozen letters.

"You're hungry?" she would shout at her husband and the two children from her second marriage. "There's the refrigerator!"

And, somehow, she brought together 149 athletes from 27 countries, with about a thousand people in attendance each of the two days. Women's world championships are now a regular event every second year.

Next she filed a sex-discrimination complaint against the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Judo Inc., the sport's mostly male governing body, for not allowing women's judo in the '81 National Sports Festival. A few days after the story hit the newspapers, the door suddenly opened and funding of women's judo finally began.

Perhaps every healthy community has its Kanokogis, a few restless ones whose agitation forces the whole group to migrate to new ideas or lands. And inevitably the group will resent them, no matter how fertile the new ideas or lands, simply because they brought change.

Now that Kanokogi's sport was on the move, U.S. Judo Inc. replaced her in the job she'd held as national coach from 1976 to 1980, when no one had 5¢ or five minutes for women's judo, naming two men as coaches. "It ripped my guts out," she says. She paid her way into the National Sports Festival and felt her big body riddled with cold stares.

Frank Fullerton, president of U.S. Judo Inc., still says, "I'd rather not discuss her." Maureen Braziel, America's top woman judo player of the '70s, and Ingrid Berghmans, the world's best today, say their sport would still be in the broom closet if not for Kanokogi.

"The very fact that she shook the boat means she'll be excluded from running the thing she created," says ACLU lawyer Susan McGreivy, who has battled alongside Kanokogi against the IOC. "They'll bring in the Aunt Nellies now, Rusty's generated so much hostility."

Would they treat her differently if she behaved like a woman? Once, before entering a meeting, Kanokogi decided to try. She wriggled into a dress, caked on the mascara, rouge and lipstick, glued on the false eyelashes and crop-dusted herself with perfume. "I tonned it up," she says. "I went up to this official I was trying to charm—I even walked weak. 'Oh, what a lovely tie you have,' I said in my softest voice. I tried to bat my eyes and look innocent; I looked like I had an affliction. It was working, he was softening up, but I had to run to the bathroom and laugh. I felt like a jerk.

"Why the hell should we have to act? Do they have to act? The same ones who will watch women mud-wrestle and shout, 'Hey, look at those big balloons,' are the ones who say no to women's judo. Why? Because the women in it are real athletes, not just show. They can take care of themselves. Some men are intimidated by that. They think, What's the sense of being a man if we can't protect a woman?"

But every now and then the strain of being the warrior became almost too much to bear. Kanokogi would go to the bedroom and close the door, to touch and gaze at the frilly $60 taffeta blouse she had bought, or the cute little key chain and makeup compact on her dresser. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Muppet figures covered her shelves and pillows and bulletin board. Sometimes she and her husband would go to a movie, and suddenly, if an animal was in pain or a good guy was suffering injustice, she would begin to cry and let him console her. "Shhhhh!" someone would hiss, and she would quickly regain her senses and tell them where to shove it.

Kanokogi couldn't afford lapses like that. Women's judo still wasn't in the Olympics.

Kanokogi is in a rush. Can't they see that? Five minutes late for her evening class when a car stops in front of her for no apparent reason. "If you're gonna die behind the wheel, at least put your blinker on and let us know!" she roars. A little boy darts across the road in front of her to get to an ice-cream truck. "That's it!" she bellows. "Die for ice cream!"

She storms into class, her Mickey Mouse T shirt beneath her gi (judo uniform), one moment screaming, one moment cracking a joke, one moment gyrating her great body to the Michael Jackson song pounding out of the stereo as the students stretch. When she goes to a disco, taking visiting judo players out on the town, she carries a towel to mop her sweat and often stays until dawn.

Suddenly bodies are flying over shoulders, slamming the mat, shaking the flimsy panel walls. Grunts and screams of exertion are coming from the Cambodians, Koreans, Russians, Japanese, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Senegalese, Panamanians, Italians, Americans, Jews, Christians and Muslims who make up her class at the Kanokogis' dojo in Brooklyn. "Don't forget the homosexual and the lesbian," says Rusty. The doorway to the class is jammed with crowds of little black boys off the street going, "Wooooooooeee! Sheeeeyet!"

"The first time I met Rusty, she choked my neck with her legs," says Parnell LeGros, who has studied with her for 12 years and is now a third-degree black belt. "I thought she was a god. I'm still scared of her. But also, she becomes like a mother to you, helps you with all your personal problems. She bothers a lot of people, but she is what's happening today in judo."

Kanokogi frets over whether her students have a cold or a ride or enough money for the subway. When a little boy in one of her day classes gets hurt and screws up his face trying not to cry, she understands so well that she'll wrap a thick arm around him and say, "It's O.K., it's O.K. That's just sweat coming out of your eyes." Everyone who isn't an American judo official comes away from Kanokogi with the feeling that if they have a problem they can lay it in her hands and it is going to go away.

She teaches 14 classes at different locales in the city, hustling from one to the next on the subway, between trips around the world coaching, refereeing, scouting talent, trying to start judo programs in Muslim countries where women can't even appear in public without veils, let alone pancake each other on a mat. Judo has swallowed her life, claimed her Japanese-American children, Teddy and Jean, both of whom are fierce competitors (she seldom sees the son from her first marriage), swamped her dining-room table and buffet and radiator with stacks of legal briefs, notebooks, rule books, tournament results, magazines, press clippings, plaques and minutes of meetings. Her family hasn't dined in the dining room in 12 years. "The day that happens, the fight is over—or I'm dead," she says.

Between classes the phone never stops ringing—judo associates checking in from across the world. Foreign competitors regularly bunk in her home and find themselves swept up in her frantic schedule. Late last summer on a weekend with Berghmans, the judo phenom from Belgium, Kanokogi awoke at 8 a.m. on Saturday; worked the phones and snacked for two hours; taught a judo class; lunched at a restaurant; shopped for her trip to Mexico City, where she would referee a tournament; came home for a shower, some of the water leaking through the first-floor ceiling, which was fine as long as nothing dripped on her judo files; told a car dealer she would rip off his wig and stuff his cigar down his throat if the car she had ordered wasn't delivered soon; danced at a disco until 4 a.m. and then breakfasted at a diner; fell into bed at 7 a.m. and slept five hours; went to the beach at noon, played ball and sunbathed there until 8 p.m.; devoured nachos and burritos at a Mexican restaurant until 11 p.m. and then popped over to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to view the Manhattan skyline until midnight, just in case it had slipped off while she wasn't looking. "Incredible," was all her husband could say.

Would she ever be able to let down her guard, relax her schedule, stop organizing, stop bellowing, stop battling? Would she ever be able to act like a woman?

"I've buried the feminine side so deep, I probably don't know how to reach it anymore," she says. "I buried it because it wasn't relevant to the cause. Now people expect me to be strong, to be a machine. I've built this image up so well, people think they can say anything and it won't hurt me.

"That's hard to take, but it's safer to be the machine. You can only 100 percent trust yourself. I love Mickey Mouse because he never screwed anyone, but even Donald Duck you gotta keep your eye on. It will be rough when I get old because I will never say, 'Please help me put my socks on.' I don't know how to let go, or if I want to let go.

"But women have to know that they don't have to be like me to go into judo anymore. Believe it or not, now they can be normal."

Just recently, after Kanokogi had sent out a 32-page packet to people in nearly 100 countries, contacted media all over the world, saturated IOC president Juan Samaranch with 25,000 signatures on a petition to reconsider women's judo for the Olympics and threatened to file a sex-discrimination complaint against ABC-TV for entering into a contract with an organization—the IOC—that allegedly discriminates against women, the IOC decided to allow women's judo into the '88 Games as a demonstration sport and into the '92 Games as an official entry. Almost immediately phone calls and letters flooded Kanokogi's Brooklyn home, congratulating her for finally winning the fight.

"Winning?" she roars. "Demonstration sport? Why only a demonstration in '88? They're just trying to squeeze a little more blood. I might fly to South Korea and talk to the Olympic officials in Seoul. It ticks me off. This fight's not over yet. I might. . . ."