Smart Girl Stories
Rena Kanokogi

Rena Kanokogi – A Fighter in Disguise

The Rise Of Rena Kanokogi

Rena Kanokogi (Glickman) was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up to become a martial artist in the Judo tradition (Judo is a modern kind of Japanese wrestling). Judo emphasizes the elegance of movement and good sportsmanship as an art form, which is probably why Rena Glickman must have been so attracted to it.

Her early life was a difficult one, and she was known to get into street fights, like when she told Wendy Lewellen that in her neighborhood, “you were either the hammer or the nail” (“Rena Kanokogo Mother of Women’s Judo”).

After these troubling early years, she married and had one son while working in telecommunications. It was during this time she separated from her husband. During hard times, Glickman, like many people, struggled to control her emotions. In this period, she discovered the art of Judo from a male friend who, despite being much smaller than her, was able to pin her in an efficient wrestling move swiftly.

Seeing this technique of skill surpassing size and strength, Rena was immediately drawn into Judo wrestling and quickly went on to establish several training centers with her husband Ryohei Kanokogi (which are still operating!) in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.  

The Lost Medal 

So how did Rena Glickman become Rena or “Rusty” Kanokogi? After the first encounter with Judo, when Glickman was 24, she began training at her local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Women were not allowed in several gyms throughout the city, but this was one YMCA allowed to train. It also just so happened that the men in this group would participate in local competitions.

One day, a member of their team got injured and couldn’t fight in a tournament. So, the team allowed Glickman to fill in for him at the last minute. What’s interesting is that Glickman disguised herself as a man—cropping her hair and tying a band around her chest—so that she wouldn’t be kicked out of this all-boys event. Even though it was her first competition, and she was a beginner, she won a medal for the team, but the referee noticed that she was a girl and confronted her about it. When asked if she was a girl, she didn’t deny it and was automatically disqualified from the game.

Rena Glickman was forced to return the medal. Her team was furious and was ready to forfeit their own medals to protest this treatment, but Glickman didn’t allow them and left the arena. Maybe at this point, by realizing that ability is worth more than being a boy or a girl, Glickman felt enough satisfaction to carry herself forward to the bright future she would end up building.  

“Get Up and Fight” 

After these incidents, Rena Glickman travelled to Japan to immerse herself in deep training in the martial art she fell so deeply in love with. There, she met her future partner Ryohei Kanokogi who was coaching the Japanese Olympic team. Together, they campaigned to get women’s Judo accepted to the Olympic games in 1992 after years of trying and being barred from the event.

These and many other stories of struggle and success have been gathered together into a memoir called Get Up & Fight: The Memoir of Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi, The Mother of Women’s Judo.

Her daughter Jeana, who also fell into the rhythm of Judo martial arts and has found her sense of purpose in the sport, helped her write the memoir before Rena took her last breath in 2009. She lived a rich life and left a legacy of good sportsmanship that impacts women and girls all over the world to this day.  

The Passion Of Rena Kanokogi

Rena’s story is about passion and what can happen when we don’t have the best outlets for it. Passion is a gift, but it can be chaotic without proper channels. Rena found a healthy outlet for her fierce and voluble passion and discovered a new version of herself in an art form that teaches discipline and self-control. Her story continues to inspire athletes and admirers all over the world.  

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Founder, Smart Girl, Survivor, Champion of womens rights and kids rights


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