RIO DE JANEIRO — When U.S. judoka Colton Brown steps onto the mat in Carioca Arena 2 in Rio Tuesday morning for his first Olympic match, the 24-year-old from Piscataway, N.J., will be buoyed by a sizeable and suitably enthusiastic contingent rooting him on from the stands, a throng that will include his mother and father, his sister, an aunt, an uncle and assorted friends. But Brown, a two-time collegiate champion and 2015 Pan-Am Games 90-kg gold medalist, will also be listening for the voice of one more supporter who will be on hand. His former coach at San Jose State, Yosh Uchida, has, as promised, made the trip from California—at the age of 96.
Uchida, who founded the team at San Jose State that has won 50 national championships and who served as the United States’s coach at the first Olympic judo tournament, at the 1964 Tokyo Games, actually has two former Spartans competing in Rio. The other, Marti Malloy, a 2010 grad and bronze medalist at London in 2012, on Monday lost to Lien Chen-Ling of Chinese Taipei in the women’s 57 kg class. The loss eliminated her from competition.
Uchida was there in London when Malloy earned her medal and it was during the celebration afterward that the then-92-year-old coach laid out the plan for 2016. He told Malloy and Brown—who had come to London as a training partner for the U.S. squad—that if both made the team for Rio, he would be there.
Recalls Brown, “I was like, ‘Yeah . . O.K.’ I mean, he was 92 at the time and you never know what’s going to happen.”
But after Brown’s Pan-Am Games victory last year Uchida reminded him of the promise. “He came up to me and said, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you fight in Rio,” says Brown. “That doesn’t put pressure on you, but it makes you excited. Like, He’s really going to come watch me? I need to make sure I make this Olympic team.”
Brown’s Olympic ambitions had been slow to take root. Though his father, Jeff, competed in judo and tried to get his son into the sport, young Colton had no interest. “I didn’t like it,” he says. “I didn’t want to do judo, I wanted to play football.”
He got his wish, but paid a price. At 8, Brown broke his leg playing football and found himself sidelined. At that point, he says, “I didn’t want to do anything. I was laying around the house for two years. I gained a bunch of weight. And my dad said, ‘You’re going to do something.’ And I said I’m not going to do anything. And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re going to go to judo.’”
And so he did—reluctantly. “I would fight it every day,” Brown says, before imitating his 10-year-old self: “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to go to practice, I don’t want to work hard.”
But slowly, fittingly, the sport worked its leverage and gained a hold on the youngster. He trained in Cranford, N.J., under renowned sensei Yoshisada Yonezuka, a two-time U.S. Olympic coach who would remain a guiding force until his death in 2014. By the time Brown was 12, he says, “I had fallen in love with judo and it got a lot easier.”
Fully immersed at last in the sport, he dug out VHS tapes of his father’s old matches—much to Jeff’s chagrin. “He was like, ‘No, you can’t watch that,’” says Colton with a laugh. “Because he was never that good. But he is a huge inspiration for me. Every tournament I went to he was with me.”
Unlike most of his contemporaries in the sport, Brown was not on a team as a teenager. From age 12 to 17 he competed on his own, traveling to tournaments across the country with his father. “We built an incredible bond,” Colton says. “He taught me everything he knows about judo—and I think he’s a much better coach than he was an athlete. And he’s 98% of the reason that I’m here right now.”
When it came time for college, however, Jeff Brown handed his son off to the master, Uchida. It was an unusual path for a kid from Jersey. “I hung with a lot of other African-American kids and they were all playing basketball and football,” says Brown. “I remember my senior year in high school, everyone was talking about their football scholarships. A lot were going to Rutgers for football, going to USC for football. They’d ask about me, and I’d say I got a partial scholarship to San Jose State University for judo. They all said, ‘Judo? Why do you keep doing this? When are you going to stop? It’s time to go to college and get serious.’”
But Brown was serious. “I had this Olympic dream,” he says. “And now that it’s finally happened, all those people are supporting me so much. I think that they didn’t realize how big judo was until they saw someone they knew put it on the map. And now they’re going to be watching, and I think it grows the sport.”
Asked what his approach will be heading into the competition, Brown, an aggressive competitor who loves to go for the ippon, judo’s equivalent of the knockout, says, “I am not the biggest strategist. I like just being out there and fighting. That’s when I’m most comfortable. My mind goes into the zone.”
He will still be listening, however, for the advice of his sensei. “I talk to him every day,” says Brown of Uchida. “Sometimes he talks to me so much he distracts me. But I know that everything that he is seeing is crucial. If he’s telling me something, I know there is value in it.”
Whatever happens on Tuesday, Brown says, he plans to be in Tokyo in 2020. And he’s counting on Uchida to be there as well—at 100.