Rena "Rusty" Kanokogi, known as the "Mother of Judo" partly for her role in bringing women's judo to the Olympic Games, has died. She was 74.
Her daughter, Jean Kanokogi, said she died Saturday at Lutheran Medical Center in New York following a three-year battle with leukemia.
Rusty Kanokogi competed in judo against men in the 1950s and helped create the first Women's World Judo Championships, which were held in 1980 in New York City.
"Rusty was the Gloria Steinem of judo, and women's judo would not be where it is today without her relentless efforts," Corinne Shigemoto, the U.S. team's coach at the 1996 Olympics, said in a USA Judo statement on Sunday.
Kanokogi coached the U.S. women's judo team at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea in 1988 — the year the sport was added to the games, according to Colorado Springs, Colo.-based USA Judo. She worked as a judo commentator for NBC during the network's coverage of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Jean Kanokogi said her mother worked hard to provide opportunities for women to compete in judo after she was stripped of a gold medal she won at the 1959 New York State YMCA Judo Championships. Women weren't allowed to compete.
Jean Kanokogi said her mother had very short hair and wore a T-shirt that flattened her breasts. She never told YMCA competition officials that she was a man when she competed with the Brooklyn Central YMCA team.
"Her coach said, 'Don't bring any attention. Just pull a draw,'" Jean Kanokogi said. "I guess she couldn't help herself and she beat the guy."
An official later called her into his office and asked if she was a female. She was told to give up her medal or force her team to give up theirs, Jean Kanokogi said.
"From there, she felt like no woman should ever suffer that indignity again. And that's how it all started," Jean Kanokogi said.
Kanokogi coached and refereed in the sport for years and received several honors, including last year's "Emperor's Award of the Rising Sun," bestowed on foreigners who have had a positive influence on Japanese society. She is also the first woman to receive the ranking of seventh-degree black belt.
In August, the Brooklyn YMCA awarded her the gold medal she had won in 1959, and she was interviewed by NBC New York about the milestone (see embedded video).
“All of Brooklyn mourns the loss of Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi, a true Brooklyn character in the best sense of the word," said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. "All of Brooklyn extends sympathies to her husband and family.”
Among her lifelong goals was to become an international judo referee, which she recently accomplished, her daughter said. She was also to be inducted into the international Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in April.
Kanokogi is also survived by husband, Ryohei Kanokogi, and son, Ted Kanokogi.
"Rusty was one of the greatest influencers in the world of women's sports and a person who never really received the acclaim and recognition she so richly deserved," Women's Sports Foundation Founder Billie Jean King said in a statement issued through USA Judo.