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Judo Isn’t Always Gentle Way : Trussell Takes Tough Road to Women’s National Championship by Redirecting Energy Into Sport

Times Staff Writer

Jan Trussell, the reigning national champion of women’s judo, faced her toughest fight when she was 18.

The opponent was big, strong and very deceptive. The fight lasted eight years. The opponent was cocaine.

Trussell, 26, says she won but admits it’s a battle that never really ends.

She is no longer the same little girl who dabbled in marijuana at 11 and once spent a night in jail at 16 because she was driving while on cocaine. It wasn’t the first time she had done that, just the first time she was caught.

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“She was addicted in a way,” Ellen Wilson, Trussell’s older sister, said. “She didn’t have the strength to get away. She’s a different person today, a lot different. She is much stronger.”

Trussell doesn’t look tough, even when she’s wearing her blood-stained judo uniform and black belt. But appearances can deceive, even in judo, which translates in English to the gentle or soft way.

Her troubled adolescence has hardened her. She never entered a rehabilitation center but says she simply decided to quit at 18 because drugs are for the weak and those who are weak can’t expect to be successful in judo.

“I have an obsessive personality and now judo is my addiction,” said Trussell, a two-time national judo champion in the 116-pound division. “It’s not enough to just say no; you have to have something to say yes to.

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“After I won my first tournament, there was no feeling like that--no high, no nothing. You can’t buy that or smoke that. It’s an amazing feeling and definitely more addictive than drugs. All those years of being used and abused made me strong and tough.”

Toughness is what sets Trussell apart from her opponents. But, how tough is she?

Well, there was that time when she put her opponent in an arm bar, which usually causes the opponent to submit. This time, however, the opponent wouldn’t give up, so Trussell kept applying pressure, hoping to break her opponent’s will. Instead, she broke her arm.

“I guess she wanted to win as badly as I did,” Trussell said.

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Then there was that time Trussell and her husband, John Ross, went to a professional soccer match and a spectator behind them threw a beer bottle at the referee. Trussell told the spectator he shouldn’t do such things.

The man, who was rather large, wanted to fight John because of Jan’s comments. But John, himself a sixth-degree black belt, told his wife to handle it. She did, putting her fists up high and preparing to fight. The man left.

Then there was that time she entered an international freestyle wrestling tournament in San Francisco without ever having wrestled before. While the other 80 women in the gym donned fancy warmup uniforms, Trussell entered wearing old warmup pants, a ripped jacket and a scowl. Her name had been left off the tournament program because no one knew her.

“It became a proving ground,” she said after winning the tournament by using judo techniques.

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Trussell has been involved in judo since she was 10, although she didn’t begin to train seriously until later when her drug use ended. She has reached third-degree black-belt status, an impressive feat considering her age. Tenth-degree black belt is the highest one can get. The youngest person to ever do so was Kyuzo Mifune from Japan. He was 76.

“There aren’t many 116-pound men who can beat her,” said the 225-pound Ross, 50. “I don’t like to work out with Jan. She makes my nose bleed.”

Ross helped pull her away from life in the wrong lane. He has been her husband and coach for eight years, and last year they opened the L.A. Judo Club in Gardena.

Ross, who took life soft and slow, and Trussell, who took it hard and fast, met at a judo clinic in Kansas City (the city where Trussell grew up) in 1980. They were married a month later. Ross, a disciple of discipline, became her mentor and taught her to channel some of her adolescent angers toward judo.

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“I knew she would be a world champion,” Ross said.

From 1984 to 1986, the couple lived at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., but they later moved to Los Angeles. Los Angeles has 101 judo clubs, more than any city in the United States, and they were looking for more competition.

Trussell missed the 1988 Olympics with a broken wrist but has been on the U.S. national team for the last eight years. Her travels have taken her from the Netherlands to Japan, from West Germany to Poland, from then to now.

“She’s definitely been an inspiration to me,” said Heather Alef, 13, a second-degree black belt and one of Trussell’s few female pupils. “She always keeps me going, keeps me feeling good about judo. She’s just great.”

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Trussell is currently training for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. She does most of her fighting against men because women usually aren’t enough competition. Her motto is “No pain, no gain, no Spain.”

Not all of Trussell’s pain has been physical, however. She has had to fight a seemingly never-ending battle against stereotypes, an abstract opponent she has found difficult to conquer.

When she tells people she is a freestyle wrestler, they invariably ask whether she wrestles in mud or whipped cream.

“I wish people would wake up,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”

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Trussell was introduced to the male-dominated judo world in 1987 when she and Ross went to work out at the Gardena Judo Club. As she entered, Trussell was handed some doughnuts and coffee and told to pass them out to the men, just as the other wives were doing. She was there to compete, not waitress, but when she said so, none of the men would work out with her.

“I was treated like a non-person,” she said.

Another time, at Ogdon’s Judo Club in north Long Beach, she began doing push-ups with the rest of the men. An instructor came over and kicked her in the stomach, telling her with his foot that she couldn’t work out with the men.

He instructed her to go over in the corner and work out with the other females. There were only two other females in the room, both of them 8.

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“We live in a culture that doesn’t encourage sports like wrestling and judo for women,” Trussell said. “We’re supposed to do gymnastics or ice skating.”

But Trussell isn’t the type to skate through life. And there’s little doubt she commands respect, especially among competitors such as Richard Rose, a first-degree black belt and the reigning junior judo champion of the Pan American Games.

“We only practice together, so she doesn’t hurt me,” Rose said before the two start to work out. “She probably could if she wanted.”

Thud! Rose regains his feet and is quickly introduced to the hard canvas once again, this time face first. The sign on a nearby wall is but a blur to him as he is hurled through the air during a hip-toss maneuver (an uchi mata ): “NEVER LET YOUR OPPONENT SURVIVE THEIR FIRST ATTACK.”

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Rose is on his back, and Trussell can’t help but smile.

She has survived again.

“I’m tough,” she said. “I’m a survivor.”


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