Throwing her weight around
When it comes to martial arts in the U.S., judo typically gets left by the wayside as the higher-profile karate and taekwondo soak up the glory. That's surprising, considering judo is the second-most practiced sport worldwide, behind only soccer. But as she trains for the London Olympics, 2010 national champion Christal Ransom is on a mission to change judo's status.
Ransom, 29, took up judo at the age of 13 for one purpose: to build strength and improve her balance for playing on a boys' ice hockey team. She juggled multiple nights of practicing both sports throughout junior high school and at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Then, during her senior year in 2000, Olympic judo coach Ed Liddie extended Ransom an offer to move into the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to concentrate on judo. She accepted and earned a scholarship to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she worked toward a degree in health science while training 20-plus hours per week.
After participating in the 2004 Olympic trials but missing out on one of the five allotted female spots, Ransom took time off from judo to finish college. "I fell out of love with it," she said. "It's a tough sport and when you put a ton of energy into it and don't reach your goal, it takes a toll on you."
In 2005 she earned a bachelor's degree; Ransom returned to judo in 2007 at the insistence of Liddie, who felt she had a shot at making the 2008 Olympic team. "I missed the sport and the competition side of things," she said. "You get the urge to fight and win again. I felt as if I didn't finish what I started; once he convinced me I had a shot, I went for it."
Even though Ransom had been away from judo for three years, re-immersing herself was like riding a bike, and by the end of 2008 she was ranked No. 1 in the U.S.
Judo is an intensely physical, one-on-one sport in which two contestants meet on a mat with the goal of scoring an "ippon" (pronounced "ee-POHN"). An ippon can be attained in three ways: by throwing an opponent flat on her back; holding her down for 25 seconds; or employing a stranglehold or armlock to force her to submit.
If judo sounds aggressive, that's because it is. Ransom, who competes in the 63kg weight class, has broken her right arm, fractured an eye socket, separated a shoulder and torn a medial collateral knee ligament twice, all on the mat. She also lives with a chronic impingement in her left shoulder. As a lefty, she fights left-side dominant, leaving that side prone to injury. Ransom's hard-core toughness isn't surprising, considering her mom is 60-year-old ultra distance runner Angie Orellano-Fisher.
Besides physical risks, judo, like any sport with weight classes, has been known to fuel eating disorders in its competitors. Ransom said it is common to use "plastics," or sauna suits, to dehydrate before competition in order to quickly cut water weight. "When I was younger, I'd starve myself to stay at a lower weight despite the fact I was growing," she said. "But I'd become dehydrated, would cramp up and my performance would suffer from lack of energy."
Now older and wiser, she trains four hours daily, making it difficult to keep weight on. In an effort to reach the 4,000 calories per day her nutritionist suggested, Ransom eats a clean diet of chicken, turkey, whole-wheat pasta, vegetables, natural peanut butter ... plus the occasional cheeseburger.
Currently competing at the El Salvador World Cup 2011, Ransom said she appreciates the self-confidence judo has instilled in her. "It makes you headstrong. Growing up as a girl, boys can't take advantage of you," she said. "Judo helps you to develop discipline, confidence and self-esteem. I think these characteristics are important for girls growing up because the stronger you are, the harder it is for people to lead you astray."
Ransom also recommends judo as a base sport for any athlete looking to improve her balance and strengthen her core, back and legs.
Training for the Olympics, as one might imagine, is tough on both the body and the psyche. Ransom confesses to having a "love-hate relationship" with judo. While she enjoys the camaraderie with her fellow athletes, there is a lonely side to the sport. "It's all on you: If you win, it's because of you. If you lose, you can't blame in on anyone else." Plus, "You get banged up a lot and it's a lot of traveling."
This year alone, she's competed in eight countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Venezuela and Ecuador. (In South America, "Judo players are like our LeBrons and Kobes," she said.) All those matches are necessary to bump up her world ranking, as players must place in multiple World Cup, Grand Prix and Grand Slam events. The women ranked in the world's top 14 as of May 2012 will make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
"Judo definitely deserves more attention," Ransom insisted. "It's a tough sport that instills great morals and values such as respect, discipline and confidence in athletes. Kids learning these at a young age can only make society better as a whole."
Add to that judo's physicality and explosiveness, and we predict this blend of physical strength, mental strategy and self-defense will be on more fans' minds come this time next year.