JUDO TRAINING IN FRANCE
– Then & Now
By Mark Lonsdale
When other judoka were heading to Japan and the Kodokan to train in the 1970s, I was afforded the opportunity to train in Europe. Interestingly, a number of envious individuals commented how “lucky” I was to be invited to live and train in France, but any serious athlete knows that luck doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Luck is the product of hard work and preparation.
But talk about “being in the right place at the right time,” in early 1974, as a member of the New Zealand national judo team, we were invited to a three-way tournament in New Caledonia with the French team and the New Caledonians. When we arrived, the French contingent turned out to be a team from the Racing Club de France (RCF), which of course I had never heard of. Up until this point, at aged 18, I had only heard stories about the Kodokan and the various university clubs in Japan such as Tenri, Tokai, Meiji and Doshisha. I had even had the captain of the Doshisha judo team living and training with me in New Zealand, and both my competition coaches, Kelvin Bradford and Rick Littlewood, had trained in Japan for several years.
But as “luck” would have it, I did well enough in the tournament to come to the attention of the French coach, Serge Feist. But equally important, I had learned a little French in high school so along with the NZ team manager, Laurie Hargraves, I was the only team member to be invited to dinner with the New Caledonian and French officials. During the course of the dinner Mr. Hargraves got into a discussion with the Racing Club’s head coach, in the middle of which he informed me that I was being invited to compete for the Racing Club in the up-coming French team championships. RCF wanted to win top club team but needed a strong junior light-heavyweight (Under 93 kg) to round out their team.
Historical note: at that time there were only five weight categories in judo, and a 10-man team was made up of five Seniors and five Under 20 Junior competitors.
Thinking this would be a one-shot deal, just one tournament, I agreed to stop in Paris on my way home from the 1974 World Junior Championships in Rio de Janeiro. Little did I realize what I was getting into, but I had taken numerous gold medals in Under 20 championships and already competed in the 1973 World Senior Champs, so was quite fearless when it came to international judo training.
When I arrived on the doorstep of the prestigious Racing Club some months later, after hitch-hiking up to Paris from Barcelona, everything I owned was in my backpack, including one rather ratty judogi, my sweats, running shoes, and a sleeping bag. I was wearing faded jeans, my judo tracksuit jacket, and flip-flops. I felt like the true shugyosha following in the footsteps of Miyamoto Musashi, traveling from dojo to dojo seeking knowledge and combat. I found both at the Racing Club.
I was immediately welcomed into the club by the manager, given an ID card, a one-room apartment on the 4th floor, shown to the dojo on the second floor, and issued a team judogi (which I still have), and a Racing Club track suit (long since worn out). I was then introduced to the internationally renowned head sensei, Shozo Awazu, now 9th dan, and the head coach Serge Feist, now 8th dan, who I had met in New Caledonia. I was then given my training schedule.
I had club training four evenings a week and I would train with the French national team three or four days a week at the National Sports Institute, INS (now called INSEP). I was expected to supplement this with running, weight training and swimming on my own time with other team members. Oh, and my first tournament, the Coupe de Paris (Paris Cup) was the next weekend. This was an individual event where I literally won all my fights by ippon in less than two minutes, but where I also dislocated my clavicle in the semi-finals of the Open category. But this did not get me out of training. I was assigned a sports doctor who would tape and strap my shoulder every day before training, and then after training would insert a large-bore needle into the joint to suck out the accumulated blood and fluids. This went on for three months but allowed the clavicle to drop back into the socket for re-taping.
But for all the pain I was in judo heaven – all expenses paid, a high quality judogi, and on the mat training 12-16 hours a week, plus access to gyms and swimming pools. When the French Team Championships came up, we went in with a very strong team, including notable champions such as Jean-Paul Coche, Patrick Rychkoff and Bertrand Bonelli. Racing Club took first place and I earned my first French national title – Champion of France by Club Team. Needless to say the Racing Club administrators and managers were ecstatic. Competition between clubs in France is fierce and there is a lot of prestige involved in being the top club. There is also a more tangible value to winning and having champions on the mat, in that this draws increased membership and revenue for the club.
The next week, expecting to be sent packing, I was informed that my performance had earned me a place on the Paris judo team – so the whole process began again, but this time for the French Championship by City Team. In the mean time the training continued. The club training each evening was tough enough, with each session ending with at least six to eight hard randori with the RCF Seniors, but the national team training was brutal. Under the watchful eye of such greats as Henri Courtine, 8th dan, and Serge Feist, 6th dan back then, we had about 80 black belts on the mat every day, all fighting for positions on the French national team. The harder they trained in randori, and the more throws they executed, the more they drew the attention of the national coaches and selectors. So, where in New Zealand I had been a national champion, in France I was barely fighting for survival. But the only thing you had to do to earn the respect of the French coaches and players was to keep turning up on time for practice. Those who missed practice or wimped out were noticed and frowned upon.
The real test came when the French hosted the Japanese team at the Sports Institute. This team included Nobuyuki Sato, World light-heavy champion, and Japanese national coach, Isao Inokuma. On the first day of training we had the usually 80-plus French judoka on the mat (plus one Kiwi) and most all took a beating at the hands of the Japanese. Since I was the same weight category as Sato, I was selected by Inokuma Sensei, and then the French coach to randori with Sato. For those familiar with his techniques, Sato had a devastatingly fast tai-otoshi that really did rattle your skull. It was painful, and in the space of two hard randori sessions he must have thrown me at least fifteen times.
That evening I literally limped back to the Racing Club and stood under the hot showers for half an hour before finding my bed and falling asleep, still fully clothed. The next morning was the closest I have ever come to skipping a training session, but I managed to take my sweat-soaked judogi and get on the metro to head out to the Sports Institute in time for the bow in. I was not surprised to find the entire Japanese contingent on the mat and ready to rumble, but the French contingent was down to less than forty players. You could see that the French coaches were not happy, but training proceeded as scheduled with two of the hardest hours I have ever lived through. It was brutal and you could see the Japanese were in their element smashing foreigners. I went so far as to select one Japanese team member for randori, who looked to be about 16 years old with pimples on his face, but he turned out to be the All Japan High School champion with a very dangerous drop-seoinage.
Again, as luck would have it, this effort earned me additional respect in the eyes of the French and Racing coaches, and from then on I was instructed to work as an assistant instructor under Sensei Shozo Awazu in the Racing Club’s junior judo program. This ran every morning from 9 am to 11 am, adding an additional 8-10 hours a week to my judo training – now up to around 24 hours per week on the mat. But the big bonus was the opportunity to be on the mat with Sensei Awazu every day to learn from him and focus on technical judo as opposed to competition judo.
Resulting from our time together, Sensei Awazu put my name forward to test for sandan (3rd dan) and began teaching me the required katame-no-kata. The way the French promotion system worked back then, the actual formal grading test was preceded by a mandatory two-day technical training camp to ensure that the applicants knew all the required techniques and kata. This is a critical part of judo development that is sorely missing in the United States where we have virtually no pre-promotion technical training camps or actual testing for higher grades. (An article for another day)
So now, in addition to the hours of training and teaching, I had weekend training camps to attend. To the weak of heart this would sound terrifying, but if you love judo this was, as I have said, judo heaven. I was doing more judo in one year than most players could hope for in five or six years, and I didn’t have to worry about working to pay for any of this. I also had a sports doctor keeping me taped and strapped for training and competitions.
Long story short, we won the Championship of France by City Team, my second title, which then put us up as the Department team for Ile de France (the region around Paris) – which we also won, making my third French title. But each of these wins was important in maintaining my place on the Racing Club team, my apartment, and my training privileges at the National Sports Institute. I had now been in France over a year and had cemented relationships for life with French judo. To this day I am still known as the only international judoka to have actually lived at the Racing Club.
Fast forward to 2013, most of my RCF team mates and INS training partners went on to become senior officials in the French Judo Federation (FFJ) or national coaches. At the Grand Slam in February we all had the opportunity and honor for a reunion when our coach, Serge Feist, now 8th dan, was awarded the National Legion of Honor for his contributions to judo. During my stay I also had the opportunity to attend training at the Institut du Judo, teach a class at one of my friend’s dojo, and train at the Racing Club de France. And be assured, even at 69 years Serge is still dangerous in newaza. Sensei Awazu is also still active in judo at 90 years and was present at both the Grand Slam and the training camp afterwards.
Training at the Institute du Judo in Paris each day still draws over 80 judoka and a dozen coaches, and there is no substitute in competition training to having a dozen training partners of the same weight category and experience level. For the international training camp, directly following the Grand Slam, there were approximately 300 men and 300 women in each session, mornings and afternoons. So if you are ever looking for an alternative to training in Japan, consider a couple of weeks or a month in Paris. There are approximately 11,000 registered judoka in Paris and 150,000 in the surrounding region, so there is no shortage of talent for the competitor in search of hard randori training or technical development.
Daily competition training at the Judo Institute is quite basic. The mat area is open for an hour before the formal training session for informal “technical practice” with your own coach. This is followed by a bow in, warm-up, and an hour and a half of uchi-komi, newaza randori and standing randori. Periodically newaza is used as the warm-up, and at the end of training competitors will often use light nage-komi as a cool down exercise. In addition to the national coach running the training, individual team coaches and club coaches are permitted on the mat to monitor and coach their athletes.
International competitors wishing to train at the Judo Institute need to go through their national governing body to make the necessary arrangements. The details are on the Institute’s web page in English, and can be accessed through the French Judo Federation (FFJ) web page. Finally, if you have never been to the Grand Slam in Paris, put it on your wish list. This is the premier event of the year outside of the IJF World Championships and Olympic Games.