If you enjoy watching judo in the Olympics, there’s a local hero you have to thank: a coach who’s inspired several generations of judo champions for over 70 years at San Jose State University.
Under Coach Yoshihiro Uchida’s direction, San Jose State has dominated judo since the early 1950s. “Yosh,” as San Jose Spartans call him, coached the first team the US sent to the Olympics in 1964, and he’s been to more than ten Olympics since then, helping students bring back four medals, including the most recent, the bronze Marti Malloy won in 2012.
"Mr. Uchida doesn’t mince words, so if you’re doing something wrong, he’s going to walk across the room, straight up to you and say ‘You’re doing it wrong. Why are you doing it that way? Do it this way and fix it.’ And the people who take what he says every time he tells them something are the ones who end up improving," Malloy says.
But she goes on to say something you hear from just about everyone you talk to about Uchida. The 98-year-old sees judo primarily as a path to personal success off the mat.
"Despite all of the successes and the Olympians and world champions that have come out of the program, it’s the facilitation of something coming later, which is a career, and a life, and probably a family," says Malloy, who retired from competitive judo last August.
"No matter how many Olympian titles you have, that's not going to put money on the table, and Mr. Uchida recognized that 70 years ago. He’s been pushing people to be educated, intelligent, and impact [the world] outside the sport. I think that's the thing that makes San Jose State stand out the most from any other training center."
At San Jose State’s Faculty Service Recognition and Awards Luncheon this past week, a delighted Uchida acknowledged a raucous standing ovation. "Thank you! Thank you!" he said, before retiring from the stage to chat with eager fans.
Over the years, Uchida has garnered a long list of awards, including the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the emperor of Japan. He has a building named after him on campus, Yoshihiro Uchida Hall, the athletic complex that includes his dojo. Now, there’s also a bench outside bearing his name.
Uchida was born in 1920, in Calexico. He grew up in Garden Grove, and he says his enthusiasm for American culture made his parents nervous he was out of touch with his heritage. "I was not learning any Japanese culture. They said 'We gotta change that!'" So they introduced him to judo.
In 1940, as a freshman at San Jose State, Uchida was asked to teach judo as a student coach. He taught for two years before being drafted into the Army during World War II -- during which his own family was separated and sent to internment camps across the American West.
Ironically, San Jose State was one of several processing centers in the Bay Area where Japanese-Americans were sorted and sent away to camps.
When Uchida returned from the war in 1947, he picked up where he left off -- and then some. Over the years, he helped establish judo in the US. As a result of his advocacy, San Jose State sponsored the first nationwide Amateur Athletic Union championship in 1953. Since then, San Jose State has dominated the sport nationally, winning more competitions than university clubs in the rest of the country combined. Twenty-two San Jose Spartans have gone to the Olympics and four won medals.
"Uchida hasn't just created a judo dynasty coaching at San Jose State. He's responsible for judo becoming a competitive sport in America," says ESPN's Tom Rinaldi in this profile.
Talking about his long career to reporters at the luncheon, Uchida mentioned Malloy's win in London as a "recent" highlight. Then he immediately launched into distinctly fatherly praise for her new career in technology as a social media manager for 30 brands.
"They came looking for someone like her," Uchida says, explaining his long-term conviction about the powerful appeal of demonstrated excellence in sports and academics, starting with its effect on students' self-confidence. "As students work out and get better and better, it gives confidence to push forward," the coach says.
"I think it’s his joy in life, first of all, his belief in people to achieve and to challenge themselves, and his commitment to helping each and every person do that. It’s genuine, it’s authentic and it's inspiring," says San Jose State President Mary Papazian.
Today, Eitan Gelber is the Director of Athletic Training at Stanford. In 1999, he was a freshman at San Jose State. Having taken up judo as a child in Israel, Gelber came to San Jose specifically to train with the top judo program in the US, which helped lead him to where he is today.
“At the beginning of the year, he usually takes all the students and gives a famous speech about how you should focus on school and judo, don’t have a girlfriend, and stay out of trouble. I want good athletes, but I want better students," Gelber says.
Uchida was not just emotionally invested in his students. He also supported some of them with financial loans, including to Gelber. He explains that students are often juggling judo, school and a job or two to cover their expenses. “[Uchida] understood that, and he was able to help, and willing to help," Gelber says.
“He has shaped the lives of many individuals. A lot of times, people can’t see that until they look backwards and see the opportunity that he has given by creating that program."
You can still find Yosh most nights at the campus dojo, keeping his students on their toes -- with an eye to seeing his charges compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Yosh plans to be there, too, even though he’ll be 100 by then.