Female Judoka from a Slum Becomes a Gold Medalist: Head Coach Yuko Fujii in Brazil Presents a New Form of Husband and Wife #3

With five months to go until the Tokyo Olympics, a Japanese woman, Yuko Fujii, leads the Brazilian men's judo team.

By Hiroaki Sawada

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Yuko and Rafaela Silva have a deep tie of trusting relationship

With five months to go until the Tokyo Olympics, a Japanese woman, Yuko Fujii, leads the Brazilian men’s judo team. We interviewed Yuko and her husband about her truly unique career, and life of a head coach while parenting with her husband.

(This is the third of the three-article series. Related links: stories #1 and #2)  

In the Brazilian judo team training towards the Rio Olympics, expectations were on gold medal hopeful Rafaela Silva of women’s -57 kg class.  

Rafaela was from a Rio de Janeiro slum called “favela,” and often got into fights during childhood. She began judo at a free sports class for children of poor families run by an NGO. She won the silver medal at the 2011 World Championship. But at the 2012 London Olympics, amid hopes for a medal, she faced a surprise disqualification in the second round for an illegal hold. She then suffered racial abuse from mindless people. (The “beast” Kaoru Matsumoto won the gold medal at the games, in the same weight class.)

Treating Her Like Glass 

– What was your first impression of Rafaela Silva?

Yuko: Superb physical ability. Because she grew up in poor circumstances, she had a tremendous combative spirit. She loved matches and also had a love for judo. However, she hated monotonous repetition drills, which could be said for other Brazilian players. 

Because of the London Olympics incident, people around her were treating her like glass. But I didn’t give her special treatment. I kept an open stance, without forcing her to practice, and tried to bring out her autonomy.  

 “Don’t Want to See Yuko’s Face,” Few Months Before the Olympics

– So things went smoothly up to the Rio Olympics?

Yuko: No. It wasn’t like that. Several months before the Olympics, Rafaela went into a slump. Some of the national team staff started saying, “she can’t win because she’s fixating on Japanese-style judo and lost her boldness.” This meant it was my fault, the only Japanese among the staff. I didn’t have the slightest intent to change her judo style. I just made her do basic drills so she could take further advantage of her strength. Such talk must have reached her ears. She stopped doing individual practice with me entirely. She even told me, “I don’t want to see Yuko’s face.” It was a complete rejection.

– That must have been a shock.

Yuko: I wondered if I had done her anything wrong. I couldn’t think of anything. She must have felt an enormous pressure, with the London Olympics outcome, and sluggish performance with the next Olympics around the corner. And it’s held in her own country, and she was the homegrown player. With such mental conditions, there’s no point in making her practice. So I just told her, “I won’t give up trying to strengthen you. I’ll wait, so come back to practice when you feel like it.” I thought only I can wait and just kept waiting.

Then She Appears as If Nothing Had Happened

That’s a very tough situation.

Then one day, Rafaela suddenly appears at the dojo. She said, “Teach me how to fight against Dorjsuren (Sumiyaa of Mongol),” looking as if nothing had happened. Dorjsuren was good at holds, with superb shoulder throw from a low posture. She was a tough opponent for Rafaela. So together, we studied ways to hold so Dorjsuren won’t be able to use her special technique. We made sure to keep the arms pressed tight, and grab the dogi wherever. We also formulated measures for other major opponents.

– How was Rafaela after that?

Yuko: She seemed to have snapped out of it. I guess she overcame the pressure, and her mental and physical conditions improved rapidly. I thought we could make it.

– How was Rafaela on the day of the match at the Rio Olympics?

Yuko: It was the third day of judo, and Brazil didn’t have a medal. I was a coach, so I had to attend the pre-match warm-ups for all Brazil team players at the practice place instead of the match venue. So I hugged her at the practice place and saw her off. I was in tears, wishing her win. In the first round, Rafaela made a clean shoulder throw and got an ippon victory against a German opponent. After beating a Korean player in the second round, in the quarterfinals, she got a waza-ari win against the fateful Hungarian player that she lost by disqualification in the London games. She got a golden-score win over a Romanian player in the semi-finals. The final match was against Sumiya Dorjsuren, that she thoroughly studied with Yuko. Rafaela threw Dorjsuren to the mat for waza-ari and became the champion. It was the first gold medal for Brazil, the hosting country.

– How did you watch Rafaela’s fight?

Yuko: I was watching the match on the TV at the practice place, desperately rooting. She fought with full confidence, with an attitude that she was the one to win, and kept winning. The moment she won the gold medal, I was really moved because I knew her suffering and efforts that led to this.

After the match, when Rafaela jumped into the area in the stand where her supporters were, Haruki was there as well, holding Kiyotake and bursting into tears.

Haruki: I was at Rafaela’s practice all the time and was like one of the staff for the Brazilian judo team…

– Besides Rafaela, Brazil won a bronze in women’s -78 kg class and a bronze in men’s +100 kg class. How did you feel about these results?

Yuko: The women’s team was a success, but the men’s results were not quite satisfactory. 

– What’s the reason for the men’s results? 

Yuko: I think we were in a phase of generation change. Some veterans went out of their way to extend their career, because the games were held in their home country. And we didn’t have younger generations that outperform the veterans who have passed their prime. 

– What were you planning to do after the Rio Olympics?

Yuko: When all the judo matches ended, a Brazil Olympic Committee officer asked me if I could continue coaching the Brazil national team until 2020 Tokyo games. I said I would like to think about it for a while and talked with my husband. 

– What was your reaction, Haruki?

Haruki: I told her, it sounds good.

In addition to the three previous years, you’ve decided to stay at least another four years in Brazil with your family. At that point, I guess Yuko had other options like return to Japan, or coach in other countries…

Yuko: I liked the easygoing way of the Brazilians, and the work environment here. My husband also agreed, so I accepted the offer.

And you give birth to your daughter Aya in May 2017.

Yuko: This time as well, I was coaching right up until giving birth, and returned to work after five months. 

– A year later, in May 2018, you are named the head coach of the Brazilian men’s judo team. How did that happen?

The head coach that took on the job after the Rio Olympics, couldn’t achieve good results at international competitions. With criticism from the local media, he quit in April 2018. Then an officer of the Brazilian Judo Confederation sent for me and asked me if I would become the head coach of the men’s national team.

– Was that totally unexpected for you?

Yuko: Not exactly. I was coaching male players as well, and if the head coach had left, I thought there were possibilities I could be appointed. After that, I was called by the Brazil Olympic Committee Chairman, and he said, “Even though you are a foreigner, you have proved that you devote yourself to the development of Brazil’s judo, and broke the paradigm. Next, I want you to break the paradigm that women can’t coach top men athletes.”

– Those are amazing words.

Yuko: When I heard that, I was really pleased and thrilled. My hands were shaking with emotion and excitement.

– At major sports powerhouses around the world, even women’s teams are mostly led by men. So a woman becoming the head coach of the men’s national team must be extremely rare.

Yuko: I think so. For example, in the Japanese judo world, women would never coach male players at universities or high school, let alone the national level. All the team staff are men. If there was a woman, it would be the dietitian. I think there are many people in Brazil with flexible thinking.

– Do you feel uncomfortable coaching male players?

I used to coach women in the U.K., but in Brazil, I’ve coached men as well as women. I hesitated a bit at first, but got used to it. Since then, I’m not aware of the player’s gender.

Results Will Decide Whether I’m a Pioneer

– Yet, the role of the head coach of the men’s national team requires significant responsibility.

Yuko: The Olympic Committee Chairman also said to me, “The job of a head coach is a thorny path. Fierce criticism awaits you if you can’t provide results. You need to be prepared for that.” But my advantage was that I knew all the male players from youth level to the top. There was no reason to decline. One European media told me, “You’re a pioneer.” I answered, “My results will decide whether or not I’m a pioneer.”  

At the time, several male players welcomed you as the head coach, saying, “Yuko teaches techniques effectively,” “We know each other well and are also familiar with her coaching method.” A heavyweight class player who makes 161-cm (5 ft. 3 in.) tall Yuko looks like a child says with a laugh, “Yuko is small but her techniques is superb. She can throw even me easily.” What were the first things you told the players after becoming the head coach?

Yuko: I believed they should practice more, so I said, “Don’t limit yourself. Don’t make excuses like you’re aiming for quality. Let’s do lots more practice.”  

– You’re like a drill sergeant (laughs). Did the players agree with that and come along with you?

Yuko: If you have a trusting relationship, the players can go through training however hard it is. Although there were some that dropped out… 

After you became the head coach, the results at the World Championships were the highest at fifth in the individual section in the September 2018 Baku championships, and a third for the mixed team competition in the September 2019 Tokyo championships held in Japan Budokan. 

Yuko: At Baku, the match itself wasn’t bad, but it didn’t lead to results. At Tokyo, in the team competition, Rafael Silva (men’s +100 kg class) fought hard while he had a broken hand, and contributed to the medal. I was really moved.

The Tokyo Olympics have been extended one year, and there are currently concerns about holding it this year.

Yuko: Since mid-March last year, the players’ clubs were closed down, and they basically couldn’t practice outside their homes. All the national team training camps and tours have been cancelled. Because of that, some players have temporarily experienced a drop in motivation. Yet the national team held a training camp for two-and-a-half months from mid-June last year in Portugal, where the pandemic was relatively contained in Europe. After that, we’ve had domestic training camps almost every month to continue improvement. For my part, I just believe the Olympics will be held, and continue to do my best to strengthen the team. 

If the Tokyo Olympics will be held, it will be your third Olympic games as a coach. Following the two homeland events for the national teams you were supporting, the next one will be held in your own country.

Yuko: It’s a strange coincidence. I never imagined it would be like this.

– How about Haruki’s support?

Yuko: I’m really grateful to him. Without his support, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Meanwhile, I feel guilty for interrupting his teaching career. Let’s hear from Haruki as well.

– Haruki, what do you make of this?

Haruki: I’m also happy that I can support Yuko 

You’re putting out information on Brazil in multiple media between your duties as a stay-at-home dad.

Haruki: It’s because I want to let other Japanese people know what I’m experiencing in Brazil. 

– Late last year, you took part in a soccer competition organized by the apartment resident association in Rio and played really well. You contributed to the team winning the second place, and were chosen as the best right winger. 

Haruki: I mingle with the local people, and made good friends. I came to understand their way of thinking. I believe I’m getting an extremely valuable experience.

At this point, it hasn’t been confirmed that Tokyo Olympics will be held. From your view, how do you think Yuko is responding to this difficult situation?

Haruki: I think she is keeping her cool, and steadily doing what needs to be done, without being taken away by each move of the situation. 

– Do the two of you talk about what you will do after the Tokyo Olympics?

Haruki: It depends on Yuko’s job, but I’m willing to adapt, whichever country we live in. If we go back to Japan, I may resume working as a teacher, or do something else. With that in mind, I’m now studying for a qualification. 

An Advanced and Ideal Family Form

Just like his father, Kiyotake loves soccer. He is a left winger of a local futsal team and says his dream is to become a professional soccer player. His mother teaches him judo, but he says he likes soccer more. He also loves handicraft, and got an electric drill for his seventh birthday present, and enjoys making things like wooden ships.

Maya likes singing and playing the piano and also takes judo and ballet lessons. Maintaining a firm Japanese identity on the other side of the world, there is a happy family that gives firm support to each other, each enjoying their own activities, despite the challenging situation of COVID-19 outbreak. Listening to their stories, I felt this may be an advanced and ideal family form that easily transcends the borders of countries, sports, and gender.

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