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How Judo Shaped Olympic Medalist Marti Malloy’s Life

By Lisa Costantini | Aug. 25, 2015, 12:40 p.m. (ET)

Marti Malloy visits USA House at the Royal College of Art on July 30, 2012 in London.

2012 Olympic judo bronze medalist Marti Malloy was 6 years old when she walked into her first dojo. To her, learning judo sounded like fun; she got to play alongside her three brothers. For her mom, “It was someplace she could take us to burn off all that extra energy, and learn something new at the same time,” Malloy said.

The teachings behind judo (its literal translation means, “gentle way ”) were something the sport’s founder, Japanese educator Jigoro Kano, was passionate about. In 1932, when the sport was being considered for inclusion in the Olympic Games — ultimately landing on the men’s program 32 years later, and 60 years later for women — Kano was passive about the honor, saying “Judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life…”

Malloy, now 29, never could have known that judo would give her life a purpose, and just as surprising, a family.

Growing up on Whidbey Island, in a small city off the coast of Washington state, Malloy’s family was not traditional in the “Leave It to Beaver” sense of the word. But they were no different than the other families living on the naval air station. With her dad in the Navy for 20 years, and away on duty for 12 of those years, Malloy remembered “most of the moms who took their kids to judo weren’t single moms — but they were operating as single moms.”

By going to judo two to three times a week, “you definitely formed a family, and you offered support for each other — not just in judo,” Malloy said. “Outside the dojo there were birthday parties and BBQs. And the people I met then I am still friends with today.”

One of those lifelong friends is Mixed Martial Arts superstar — and the first U.S. woman to medal in judo at the Olympics — Ronda Rousey. The two shared plenty of mat time together as they worked their way up the junior ranks. Malloy gives her former opponent a lot of the credit as to why there is now so much more exposure for her sport. (And in Rousey’s new book, “My Fight / Your Fight,” credits Malloy as being the only opponent to ever beat her.)

“Ten or 15 years ago, no one had any idea what judo was,” the 2015 Pan American gold medalist said.

When others found out what sport she did, Malloy remembered they would always attempt to do a judo chop — which of course is not something judokas do. “I used to get annoyed, but lately more and more people I’m running into know exactly what the sport is. For me that’s super rewarding, because that never would have happened a few years back.”

It’s all thanks to what she called the “huge expansion of mixed martial arts.”

“A lot of MMA athletes are using judo and winning with judo,” Malloy said. “People recognize that judo is the throwing and the takedown aspect, and most know that there’s no punching or kicking.”

Though it is still hard for people to believe there is anything “gentle” about judo — and Malloy understands that. “A lot of times people who aren’t knowledgeable about judo will go, ‘what? Are you kidding me? You’re throwing people to the floor and bending their arm backwards.’ But if you think of it in terms of other martial arts, there’s a flow to it.”

The goal of judo, she said, is “to do the least amount of damage but get the biggest impact, which is what they mean by ‘the gentle way.’ I’m not punching or kicking somebody into submission. I’m manipulating their balance instead so that I can throw them in the most efficient way with the least amount of effort.”

She said for her, “that’s the most difficult thing in training. When you’re doing a physical hand-to-hand combat, your instincts are to do things that are more painful or push someone down. Judo teaches you do the opposite.”

Because Malloy was learning judo lessons before most kids have even lost their first tooth, she admitted she has no idea who she would have been as a person had she not picked it up.

“One of the most rewarding things for me is when I meet someone who picks up judo as an adult, and tries it for the first time,” she said. “I’m sort of jealous that they get to have this revelation about the sport.”

Her revelation didn’t come until many years into her judo career.

“The things I do in my everyday life are so much easier for me because of judo. When I go to judo — even though I love it — every time I step onto the mat, I have a sense of anxiety. I wonder if I’m going to be able to push myself as hard as I need to. Am I doing everything I need to in order to get a medal? When I go out there, there is someone there everyday who is trying to stop me. Trying to do everything they can to prevent me from getting the best of them. But when I go into the real world I think, are you kidding me? This is nothing.

“If I can handle that for hours a day, then the challenges I face in life seem very small, even when they are big and important. And that’s something judo has taught me.”

It’s a tough lesson, especially with a plate full from training, competing and trying to earn a master’s degree. But it’s a lesson she will take with her long after she stops competing. Her passion has always been judo, but right now it’s winning a world championship title in Kazakhstan this week.

“Every day when you wake up, you need to have a purpose for what you’re doing in life — whether it’s a job or your family, or whatever,” Malloy says. “For me, every day I wake up I’m passionate about improving in judo in some way. So if I don’t accomplish my goal of becoming a world champion this year, I will probably consider trying for a world title again after the Rio Olympics.”

Thinking about the day when the competing comes to an end is hard to imagine, but, she said, “I think my biggest sadness is that I’m going to have to shift my day-to-day goal thinking to something else.”

But one constant will remain – Malloy will always have her judo family.

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Marti Malloy