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For Denver judo athlete Robert Tanaka, Paralympic gold would fulfill a lifelong dream

Training with the games as his goal since he was 5 years old, Robert Tanaka will compete in Tokyo without friends and family who have supported his quest present

US Blind Judo Association team member Robert Tanaka works out with training partner Constantin Pop Sunday, August 1, 2021 at Ju Shin Kan Judo Club in Colorado Springs. Tanaka is Tokyo-bound to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Robert Tanaka got an unexpected welcome when he recently visited the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum in downtown Colorado Springs.

After checking in at the ticket counter, he walked into a large open atrium, where the assembled staff gave the 21-year-old albino athlete a standing ovation. A digital display, three-stories high, rotated a portrait of Tanaka along with Olympians from the past and present, with the message “Welcoming: Robert Tanaka Tokyo 2020 Paralympian.”

He nervously accepted the accolades and the looks from curious passersby who wondered who this young man might be. He’s one of the team members of the U.S. Blind Judo Association team, and now in Tokyo to go for the gold.

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He grinned and shook his head as he moved through the museum’s many interactive exhibits that used the RFID chip in his visitor’s badge to identify him as he approached and greet him by name.

“Now it feels real,” he admitted.

He was embarrassed by the attention. Tanaka isn’t used to being in the spotlight, partly because as a Japanese American, he was raised with an aversion to bringing attention to himself. But also, because his chosen sport – judo – is one of the lesser-highlighted stars in the constellation of Olympic competition. And finally, because he’s a Paralympian, and the Paralympics have historically not drawn the level of attention the Olympic games get. 

Tanaka was happy that Paralympic sports and athletes got their share of attention in the museum’s interactive exhibits and display, though he thought it was typical that only one judo gi (the uniform for the martial art) was displayed. Judo and karate were introduced as an Olympic sport in 1964 – the last time the games were held in Tokyo.

The Paralympics began during the opening of the 1948 London Olympics, when a physician organized an archery competition among a group of wheelchair athletes, 16 men and women who were injured in World War II. The event was officially named the Paralympics and debuted with more competitions during the 1960 Olympics in Rome. There are now 22 summer and six winter Paralympic sports.

Tanaka lingered at a timeline of Olympic torches through the years, and compared the 1964 torch and this year’s model, thinking about his Aug. 19 departure from Denver to Tokyo.

US Blind Judo Association team member Robert Tanaka. Judo competition begins in Tokyo on Aug. 27. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When he was done touring the museum with his mom, Shelly, and training partner Luke Smith, Tanaka autographed a metal wall panel that’s been signed by other Olympians and Paralympians who’ve visited since the museum opened in June.

After walking through the history of the Olympic games, Tanaka turned to his future, and went to Ju Shin Kan Judo Club, the dojo where since age 8 he has trained under head sensei Paul Truong.

Tanaka also trains closer to his home in Park Hill, at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple in Denver’s Sakura Square, and at a Denver dojo that is home to the blind judo team, coached by sensei Scott Moore.( Moore won a gold medal in judo at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 and bronze medals in Athens in 2004 and in Atlanta in 1996.) 

But Tanaka (and his mom Shelly) say Truong’s a much more old-school disciplinarian and that Tanaka benefits from his training in Colorado Springs, where he also has been receiving physical therapy at the Olympic Training Center. 

The first time she saw her son train with Truong, Shelly said she had to leave the dojo and wait in her car because she felt the sensei was being too harsh. But that’s changed over the years. Robert’s younger brother Nicholas began training with Truong years later, when he was 12 (he’s 17 now, and doesn’t have aspirations to compete).

Ju Shin Kan is inside a north Colorado Springs warehouse district building that’s been fitted with padded flooring and stacks of extra cushion mats. There’s a small area for one set of bleachers like you might see in a high school gym so families can watch their kids training or competing. But there’s also a sign on the wall that states, “PARENTS… Do not coach your own kid or interfere with training or you will be asked to leave. Parent is not a ‘coach’! Sitting at the sideline does not make you a coach.”

Paul Truong is clearly the boss in this house.

Training includes taking care of the dojo

During a training session in July, Truong seems mostly gentle with Tanaka and his two training partners, Luke Smith and Constantin Pop, perhaps in deference to his injury. Tanaka is still going through physical therapy for a shoulder injury suffered at a Paralympic qualifying match in Azerbaijan this May and then in London in June. But after the session the athletes and Shelly Tanaka said sensei was being easy on Robert because a reporter was watching. He’s usually much harder on everyone, they said. Truong just chuckled.

Tanaka and Smith were at the dojo first and they spent some time cleaning the facility, sweeping and mopping the floors and disinfecting the vinyl-covered mats. Once Truong arrived, the workout began with what could be a tango dance move on steroids – Tanaka and Smith facing each other, then Tanaka spinning hard into Smith over and over. That evolved into Tanaka grabbing Smith by his gi and throwing Smith over his head onto a mat. 

US Blind Judo Association team member Robert Tanaka throws training partner Constantin Pop at Ju Shin Kan Judo Club in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Tanaka was paired with Smith and then with Pop for various other moves, then they switched to sparring matches where the opponents would bow, circle warily and then grapple and throw down each other while the third man kept time and called the match.

Truong kept up a stream of comments from the floor by the bleachers, but mostly he noted the slightest of problems and suggested improvements. Clearly, Truong knows his judo. The Tanaka family chose him to train with because some of his students had gone on to become national champions.

Robert Tanaka began studying judo when he was just 5 years old. Being both Japanese American and albino, with blond hair, pale skin and limited sight, he would have been an easy target for bullies. But, he said he can only remember being bullied once, in first or second grade. “I got in one fight. Just one fight my entire life,” he recalled. “It was elementary school, and I threw the kid. And (after that) nobody ever bothered me. But, you know, this sense of not fitting in was always present.”

That feeling of being an outsider is still with him, even at the University of Southern California where he trains but is not on a judo team,. “Like going to college, for instance, everything has kind of remained the same. You know, I still have accommodations for my sight. I sit in the front of the room,” said Tanaka, who is a junior studying economics. “No college student wants to sit in the front of the room, right? And then, you know, I kind of still try to fit in as much as I can.”

He can’t drive, so In Colorado, his family takes him everywhere. In Los Angeles, he relies on friends to drive him or public transportation, though he said most places he needs to go at USC are within walking distance. One of his favorite destinations is Little Tokyo, where he feels at home in the Japanese restaurants.

“You know, I typically like being around, you know, my Japanese American heritage. I joined a Japanese American club (at USC), and, but I always stick out no matter what,” he said.

The most common symptoms of albinism are the lack of skin pigment, so people with the inherited disorder are easily sunburned, and they often are blind or have diminished eyesight. Tanaka and his younger brother Nicholas both have those symptoms. It’s rare for both parents to carry the gene for albinism (there may not be any history in their families), and it’s especially rare when both parents who carry the gene give birth to multiple children with albinism.

Tanaka has adjusted to his disability and he’s used to making his way in the world, with some help. “Without my glasses, I could see about 3 feet in detail,” he said. “It’s just you know, colors and object shapes. With my glasses, it extends a little further, not too much past that, where you can see the blackboard.”

Tanaka said he was drawn to judo because of his heritage. He considered wrestling, which like judo, is a full-contact sport (and adaptable to someone who’s sight-impaired), but he felt more comfortable with the philosophical physicality of judo than the brute force of wrestling. “I like judo because, you know, the cultural aspect of it. I grew up Japanese American, and it’s a Japanese sport. I just kind of fit in a way, you know?”

However, as a child and even a young man he competed in judo with others who could see. He wasn’t allowed to compete in blind judo until he was 17, the minimum age requirement, and had to compete against sighted athletes. But, he said, “the Paralympics have always been my end goal. When I started judo that was my dream to make it there, you know? There’s some guys that their goal is to go three times four times (to the Olympics or Paralympics), but mine was to go once and be the best. And, you know, everything after that is icing on the cake.”

The icing, he hopes will be for him to teach and train judo as a sensei himself – he already gives advice to his training partners during practice – while he has a day job that will use his economics degree.

For now, he’s completely focused on the upcoming Paralympics. He and his four Team USA Paralympic Judo teammates departed for Tokyo on Aug. 19. Until then he trained nonstop both in Colorado Springs and in Denver. But it won’t be like any Paralympics he’s ever imagined competing in, thanks to COVID and the lack of any spectators besides other athletes.

“That really sucks,” he said, although he acknowledged that the world’s health is more important. “Because the thing that separates the Olympics from, you know, a normal qualifier, or the worlds is not only the reward, of course, but it’s the atmosphere. And especially because it’s in Japan. They love judo there.”

Unfortunately because of the pandemic, his family, who had been excited to travel with him as soon as Tokyo was named to host the 2020 games, also won’t be able to be there to cheer him on.

“That’s when I really wanted to make it (to the team) and my parents were super excited for all of us to go to Japan,” Tanaka said. “Yeah, it’s very unfortunate.”

But he’s looking forward to having his dream come true, even despite the restrictions. “It’s the opportunity to represent my country and the sport I’ve done for my whole life,” he said. “And this has been my dream since I first started judo. So I guess, in a sense, I’m looking forward to you know, just living that dream.”

And bringing home a medal as a souvenir.


Follow along:
2020 Paralympic judo competition begins Aug. 27.
Robert Tanaka participates in the 60 kg division.

US Blind Judo Association team member Robert Tanaka, right, and training partner Constantin Pop bow to each other during training. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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