Members of the Kanokogi family pose with New York City Council Member Mark Treyger and the Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi Way street sign on Oct. 27, 2019 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- New York City has many avenues, streets and parkways named for statesmen, civil rights leaders and fallen police officers. There are even a few — Jackie Robinson Parkway and Joe DiMaggio Highway come to mind — named for athletes.
Few are named for women, and fewer still for female athletes.
Now, a Coney Island, Brooklyn, native renowned as the “mother of women’s judo,” has received that rare honor.
On Sunday, one day before World Judo Day, the corner of Coney Island’s Surf Avenue and West 17th Street became Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi Way in tribute to the late Kanokogi (1935-2009), a judo competitor, referee and teacher who fought tirelessly for inclusion of women’s judo in the Olympic Games.
“I felt that Rusty was a part of this whole process, because she was a mover and a shaker — she got things done,” Jean Kanokogi, Rusty’s daughter and a former member of U.S. national judo team, said.
“The fact that Rusty is getting her ‘Way’ — pun intended — is absolutely fantastic,” she added. “I couldn’t think of a more just way to memorialize her forever in her hometown.”
The naming ceremony took place at MCU Park, home of the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team, in the shadow of the famed Cyclone roller coaster and just steps from the Coney Island boardwalk, where Rusty Kanokogi sold confetti as a child to help support her Russian immigrant family.
“Her best friends were the vaudeville acts in Coney Island,” her daughter said. “There is a parachute jump stand right outside this door; she used to jump off of that continuously. She used to ride the Cyclone continuously. Growing up as a family, we would come to Coney Island just about every Sunday in the winter to walk the boardwalk.”
The event was hosted by New York City Council Member Mark Treyger and the Honorable Devin P. Cohen, a member of the USA Judo Board of Directors and a student of Kanokogi’s. It drew attendees from far and wide; Oscar Cassinerio, a member of the International Judo Federation Executive Committee, traveled from Argentina to honor Kanokogi, the first American woman inducted into the International Judo Federation Hall of Fame.
Kanokogi’s introduction to the judo world is legendary. In 1959, the Brooklyn YMCA team competed at the New York State YMCA Judo Championships. The team was a man down, so Kanokogi was added to the lineup, disguised as a man. She won her match, but officials stripped her of her gold medal when they discovered she was a woman. That experience led to a lifetime of advocacy.
“It instilled a feeling in me that no woman should have to go through that again,” Kanokogi told The New York Times shortly before her death in 2009.
Knowing that a world championship was prerequisite to making women’s judo an Olympic sport, Kanokogi organized the first women’s judo world championships at Madison Square Garden in 1980, mortgaging her family’s house to do so. Her efforts paid off: women’s judo was included as an exhibition sport at the Olympic Games Seoul 1988. It became a fully vetted sport in 1992 in Barcelona. (Men’s judo debuted at the 1964 Olympic Games and has been contested continuously since 1972.)
At the London 2012 Games, Kayla Harrison became the first American, male or female, to win Olympic gold in judo. She repeated the feat in Rio in 2016.
Kanokogi made tremendous contributions to judo as a teacher. Under her coaching, AnnMaria De Mars won a gold medal at the 1984 world championships, the first American to do so. De Mars’ daughter, Ronda Rousey, won bronze in the women’s 70 kg. class at the 2008 Beijing Games; Rousey has famously gone to mixed martial arts and professional wrestling careers.
“Rusty’s impact is felt worldwide,” Keith Bryant, CEO of USA Judo, said. “From a USA Judo perspective, many of the results women have achieved involve her legacy. More and more women are getting involved in judo, thanks to her.”
Eve Aronoff-Trivella, a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Judo Team and a lifelong student of Kanokogi’s, spoke of the tremendous influence her coach exerted on her life.
“She made me believe in myself, and said that great things were possible,” Aronoff-Trivella said. “I can hear her now: ‘Never give up, fight your guts out, go out there and get what you’ve been working so hard for.’”
“It was her strength and dedication that eventually got women’s judo into every world event,” Aronoff-Trivella added. “It took decades of meeting, phone calls and flights to speak with the IOC, the USOC. Whatever it took, she did it.”
Kanokogi is revered in Japan. While studying at the Kodokan Judo Institute in the early 1960s, she met her husband, Ryohei Kanokogi. In 2008, she received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, the highest honor that can be bestowed to a civilian by the Japanese government.
“Thanks to Kanokogi-Sensei, hundreds of women in Japan have been given the opportunity to compete on the Olympic stage, and have given girls inspiration to follow suit,” Kenju Murakami, Deputy Consul-General of Japan in New York, said.
It’s especially fitting, then, that Kanokogi’s final resting place is in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu, site of the iconic and indomitable Kumamoto Castle.
“The epitaph written on the stone is ‘Rusty Kanokogi, American Samurai,’” Jean Kanokogi said.