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Personal friendship forged through international sport sparks hope during COVID-19 Pandemic

June 01, 2020, 1:23 p.m. (ET)

Cecil Bleiker,
USA Judo Communications Specialist

FRIENDSHIP, RESPECT, HONOR, COURAGE, COURTESY, HONESTY, MODESTY, SELF-CONTROL; these are the eight values of the judo moral code taught to every judoka from the first time they enter a dojo. If nurtured properly, even with stumbles along the way, these values will guide a judoka throughout their lives inside and outside the dojo.

CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS. These three Latin words were chosen by Pierre de Coubertin in 1894 to be the Olympic motto which is known worldwide. The motto, a phrase which sums up a philosophy of life or a code of conduct, translated into English is “faster, higher, stronger.” This motto has always been meant to encourage athletes to give their best during competition. The Olympic creed is “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”

Judo became an official Olympic sport in 1964, but the shared values of Judo and the Olympics transcend time. These values are also shared by 2008 Olympic gold medalist and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist judoka Tong Wen (over 78kg) of China and USA Judo Chief Executive Officer, Keith Bryant (Colorado Springs, Colo.), a 26 year Olympic sport administration veteran. In her competitive career, Tong (Tianjin, China) won gold medals at the 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011 World Judo Championships, as well as a bronze in 2001. Bryant, a graduate of Springfield College’s Sport Management program, began his career in minor league and Special Olympics sport before serving the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee for 17 years and the YMCA for three years before becoming the CEO of USA Judo in the summer of 2016.

Keith Bryant, Dan Gomez, Soren Prell, Tong Wen, Bob PerezL to R: Keith Bryant, Dan Gomez, Soren Prell, Tong Wen, Bob Perez
 

Tong and Bryant first met in November of 2017 at USA Judo’s President’s Cup tournament in Irving, Texas (November 19, 2017). Tong was in the United States on a student visa attending the University of Minnesota. Tong had travelled to Irving, Texas to attend the event and see what a national judo event looked like in the United States. When she learned that the USA Judo CEO was also in attendance, the Olympic gold medalist asked to meet him. The two met discussed judo and shared their backgrounds. Bryant said that Tong seemed interested in USA Judo and offered to help however she could.

An opportunity soon presented itself in the spring of 2018 when Bryant asked her to serve as a clinician at the grand opening of the USA Judo International Training Center at the Pacific Rim Martial Arts Academy owned by Mike Martyn in Tigard, Ore. February 17-18, 2018. While in Tigard, Tong, her husband and young son even made homemade Chinese dumplings for Bryant, Martyn’s family and several others at Martyn’s house. As Bryant retold the story, he shared that the dumplings were “soooooo good and delicious.” Tong also conducted a clinic at the National Collegiate Judo Association’s National Championships, March 11, 2018 at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa; putting on a two hour clinic before those events took place.

“After that we continued to stay in touch and the next time we saw each other was in our hotel lobby at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Japan (August 25 - September 1, 2019),” said Bryant. “While we were talking and catching up she mentioned that she had a team of about 20 elite women judokas in China and she wanted to bring them to the United States and do some training which we were happy to help arrange.”

In mid January 2020, just a couple of weeks before mainland China was shut off from the rest of the world due to the feared spread of COVID-19 beyond China’s border, Tong, a fellow coach and their team traveled to the U.S. with 14 elite level female athletes including 2012 Olympian Chen Fei (under 78kg) and Wang Yan (over 78kg), both 2020NE Olympic hopefuls. Wen’s Chinese team visited the Ki-itsu-sai Judo National Training Center in Coconut Creek, Fla. for a week long training camp with some of USA Judo’s best elite athletes led by Jhonny Prado and German Velazco. Ki-itsu-sai is the home of 2016 USA Judo Olympian and ranked 2020NE USA Judo Olympic hopeful Angelica Delgado, as well as fellow 2020NE USA Judo Olympic hopefuls and top senior athletes Adonis Diaz, Amelia Fulgentes and Alex Turner. The club also boasts several top athletes hoping to become the future USA Judo Olympians including Jacob More, Tasha Cancela, Nicholas Rodriguez, Dominic Rodriguez and Maia Waggoner. To see photos from the camp, please visit: https://www.teamusa.org/USA-Judo/Features/2020/January/15/USA-Judo-Welcomes-Chinese-Delegation-to-Train-at-Ki-Itsu-Sai.

Tong was using the camp to prepare her team for the final push of 2020 International Judo Federation Olympic qualifying events most of which were scheduled to be held in Europe. Though none of her team was infected with COVID-19, the Chinese judoka were some of the first internationally competitive athletes to be impacted by the worldwide precautions taken to try to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in mainland China. Due to the unfolding health crisis in China, the French embassy closed its doors making it impossible for the Chinese team to obtain the travel visas needed to travel to and compete in the IJF’s Paris Grand Slam 2020, February 8-9 in Paris, France. While the rest of the judo world continued to compete and the larger world went about business as usual, Chinese athletes and Chinese citizens began isolating.

Medical MasksMedical Masks - Photo by Christina Yannetsos

In late March 2020 when New York City and the United States of America became the COVID-19 epicenter and it was apparent that the USA would not be spared from the wrath of the Coronavirus, Bryant received an e-mail from his friend Tong on March 29th checking on him and his family as well as the larger USA Judo family and again offered whatever help she could do to help. Knowing the importance of personal protective equipment, especially masks, she offered to buy and send hospital grade masks to her friends at USA Judo. Bryant quickly accepted his friend’s offer and connected her with the frontline medical worker he knew best in USA Judo’s Team Doctor, Christina Yannetsos, M.D. an Emergency Room physician in Denver, Colo. Yannetsos, a former USA Judo elite level athlete and 2004 Olympic alternate has provided invaluable professional guidance and expert medical advice to Bryant as well as USA Judo athletes and staff throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. One month later (April 25, 2020) 300 hospital grade masks arrived on Dr. Yannetsos’ doorstep in Denver and were quickly distributed to Yannetsos’ teammates and fellow frontline workers in the USA actively fighting COVID-19.

 

When the masks arrived both Yannetsos and Bryant e-mailed Tong to let her know and to thank her.

Tong’s response was as follows: “You are welcome! I hope our friendship will last forever! All lovers of judo in the world are a big family. We work together for a common cause and hobby! We look forward to seeing us get together again for judo after the virus is over!”

While Bryant, Tong and many reading this article are very familiar with conducting international business and travelling all over the world, a worldwide pandemic has a way of changing things. It was no easy task and took a level of commitment for Tong to procure and ship critical personal protective equipment beyond China’s border to the United States at this time in history. Despite the hurdles, Tong overcame them like she shed opponents on the tatami and found a way to get it done for her friend. The masks sent by Tong to USA Judo arrived just one day after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made public the story of retired Kansas farmer Dennis Ruhnke who mailed a single N-95 mask to New York to give to a frontline worker. That story of selfless generosity quickly spread and inspired a grief filled nation. Tong’s gesture is similar on the international level. While some pessimistic naysayers may see these types of gestures as tiny pebbles being dropped into a vast ocean, the ripple effect of the gestures live on much, much longer than the initial impact. The 300 masks sent by Tong were quickly put to good use by people that needed them and though their physical useful life will expire, the inspired hope and sense a common humanity will live on. For many, this is yet another example of the lasting legacy of the shared values of judo and Olympic sport that couldn’t have come at a more poignant time.

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