One more Olympics for the father of American judo

Yoshihiro Uchida's smile is big, but he's known as a meticulous taskmaster, a necessary skill to coach athletes in the strategic discipline of judo. David Schmitz Photography via AP

RIO DE JANIERO -- Each night before she goes to bed, Marti Malloy closes her eyes and settles deeply into herself. She sees it happen.

She is standing tall on a mat at the Carioca Arena after beating her last opponent. The Olympic gold medal, so tantalizingly close at the London games four years ago, is finally hers. She searches the crowd for a small, white-haired man, almost a century old. He is her mentor and confidant -- the father of U.S. judo.

"If I can win, it will be bigger than just being about me and what I accomplished," Malloy says, her deep green eyes growing large at the thought. "Hopefully it will help give a big boost to American judo. And it will be a sign to Mr. Uchida, thanking him for standing behind me all these years."

And for everything else he has done.

This past weekend, Yoshihiro Uchida embarked on an interminable journey from California to the Olympic Games in Rio. His flight ran into a storm, was diverted to land and refuel, then missed its connection. No matter his age, he was not about to turn back. This probably will be his protégé's last Olympics. He might live long enough to watch the 2020 games on TV, but given the difficulties of travel, he almost certainly won't be there. Mr. Uchida is 96 years old.

He has toiled for years at a sport which, for all its popularity worldwide, is obscure in America. His first Olympics were the 1964 games in Tokyo, where he coached the U.S. team. From scratch, he has built San Jose State into the preeminent judo power in the United States. Without fail, he still oversees practice every day.

Yoshihiro Uchida is extraordinary. His life collided with one of the most shameful moments in American history, and that experience informs his supervision of Malloy and others, including Colton Brown, another San Jose State judoka who will fight in Rio this week. "He has taught me to keep going," says Malloy, who at 30 is the third seed in Rio's 57 kilogram weight division, a competition set to unfold on Monday. "If you have a goal, stay at it, because nothing is impossible if you go about it the right way.

"It's a way of looking at life that comes from what he's been through."

Born in a Calexico, California, on April 1, 1920, Uchida was raised near Anaheim by parents who had immigrated from Japan. They encouraged him to learn judo as a way of connecting with his roots.

In December of 1941, he was a student at San Jose State and teaching judo when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was drafted into the Army and was in uniform when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the executive order that sent nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps. "There I was, an American citizen, set on defending my country, while at the same time our lives at home are being torn apart," Uchida told me before he set out to Rio. "We're being sent from our homes and farms to the camps. For what? Because of being Japanese. My parents, and so many of my family members ..."

His voice fades. Uchida is a proud man. If he sees a flaw in technique, he lectures Malloy and the other judoka in his charge, but it is not easy for him to talk about his parents, his brothers and his sister, imprisoned in Poston, Arizona, behind barbed wire.

Back then, despite the pain, Uchida managed to tamp down his anger and focus on making it through World War II. Afterward, he returned to San Jose State, a campus with a permanent reminder of life upended: The gymnasium had been a processing center that sent thousands to the camps.

Unwilling to let go of his dreams, Uchida earned a degree in biological science. He revived the school's judo program, and began teaching judo to police cadets. Many were war veterans, and their views had been shaped by virulent racism.

"The prejudice," Uchida says, shaking his head. "They'd just finished fighting the Japanese. They would say, 'We are not going to learn anything from a Jap instructor!' Or, 'Hey, Jap, what are you going to teach me?' Their ignorance was hard to take."

Life wasn't any easier away from the judo mats. Jobs were hard to find; Uchida's time in the Army and his college degree did not lessen the stigma of being Japanese. He eventually got work in an overnight laboratory at a local hospital. In the mid-1950s, he borrowed money to buy a medical lab of his own. Over the years, he bought more, then sold them to a company called Unilab in the late 1980s for $30 million.

All the while, he crusaded for judo. It was a way to teach character and discipline so students could make it through tough times. He worked incessantly to move the deeply traditional martial art, with its connection to the Samurai, into the realm of competitive sports. He led the effort to make competition fair by creating weight divisions, and he pushed to have judo sanctioned by the AAU.

He helped organize the first collegiate judo championship, held in 1962 at the Air Force Academy. His San Jose State squad won it -- the first of 50 titles the school has earned. (Judo has yet to be recognized by the NCAA, so it remains a club sport on college campuses.) Uchida campaigned to make judo an Olympic event. The team he took to Tokyo in 1964 was the first Olympic squad fielded by the United States.

"It felt like I was the envy of many in the Japanese-American community," he says. Uchida was 44 at the time. "Here's a guy whose parents were interned and everything that came with that, and now he is representing the United States as coach? And in Japan of all places. It was something many people took as a sign of progress. … I have had quite a journey in this sport."

Nearly 30 years after Tokyo, Marti Malloy began a journey of her own. She fought on judo mats at a little dojo in Oak Harbor, Washington, where she was born. Oak Harbor is a military town, a ferry ride plus an hour's drive from Seattle. Her father, an aircraft technician in the Navy, was often deployed, and Malloy says her mother stuck her in judo to keep her occupied.

From the very start, she possessed unusual strength. "I could always just move in there and use my muscle," says Malloy, who stands 5-foot-3 and has brown hair that falls to her shoulders. "But that's not judo. Judo is also about technique."

She won multiple junior national titles and quickly made a name for herself. She left home at 16 and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lived with a family she barely knew so she could be closer to top training. She fought fierce matches against her friend Ronda Rousey, the MMA superstar who grew up in judo and won a bronze medal at the Beijing games in 2008. She worked for a while with a coach who was so merciless that she became anxious and depressed.

For a brief time, she quit.

"That was the low point," she says. "The high point was going to San Jose State, and finding Mr. Uchida."

He was held in such awe that he seemed impossible to know. He was a task-master who focused on the tough, unglamorous skills of grappling. But he spoke just as much about the importance of good character and about being highly educated. He said that he wanted his judoka to contribute positively to society.

What made him this way? Malloy wondered.

"So I tried to push past the barrier. I would ask about his day, and that opened things up to get to know him better, little by little. Eventually he became more than a coach. He became a friend. I found out things like the fact he wants us to be smart and well educated so nothing happens again like the crap that happened in the '40s. I found out there was more to what he was aiming for than just judo."

When he was 92, Uchida flew to the London Olympics and watched Malloy charge into the semifinals. Then, near the end of a close match, she was caught off guard by a Romanian who drove her to the mat for a last-second victory. She still had a chance at bronze, but there were only 90 minutes to put the stunning loss behind her. She doesn't know how she did it, but says part of it was her awareness that Mr. Uchida was watching.

In the consolation match, she tried a deceptive move, the Ko-Ichi. It sent Italy's Giulia Quintvalle's back to the mat. She was the defending Olympic champion. Malloy had her bronze -- only the second medal won by an American woman in Olympic judo.

"I looked up in the stands and saw Mr. Uchida smiling," Malloy recalls. "I didn't want to cry because I was so happy, but my emotion ..." They locked eyes, she remembers, and tears streamed down her cheeks.

After London, Marti Malloy could have retired. She held not only the bronze medal, but a degree in advertising. She'd been on the dean's list. She was 26, when many high-level judo players quit. Training is brutal, injuries are frequent, and the pay isn't great.

But she did not stop. Going for the gold in Rio, where she has gotten a first-round draw, is a testament to her coach. "I remember him saying, 'Why would you give up? Of course you are going to try for Rio. You have the ability to go down there and win the gold. You know, I have always believed that.'"

Earlier this summer, the two went off to their monthly dinner at Kubota, a Japanese restaurant not far from downtown San Jose. They took me along. I listened to their easy, light-hearted banter. Yoshihiro Uchida sounded like a proud grandfather chatting with a much-favored granddaughter.

They laughed about his diet: sashimi, salad and a glass of scotch. They talked about prospects for American judo. They spoke of the symbolic power of the San Jose State gym, where the judo team trains. The internment processing center is now Yoshihiro Uchida Hall.

"You did something so good," she said, speaking of all that he has accomplished. "Not only for the United States but for the world to see. ... Perseverance."

What about Rio? Uchida stopped the conversation for a moment to remind both of us that winning is vitally important, but not everything.

"Marti is already a champion," he said. "The way she carries herself, like a leader, smart and honest, in a way that gets respect. She is a champion human being."