In a cold northwest Fresno warehouse, an athletic dynasty you’ve probably never heard of holds court. As rain pounds the metal roof, a master nods approvingly as his granddaughter slams her uncle onto a red-and-blue mat that rests on dozens of old tires meant to cushion the combatants’ fall.
Judo may not be the first sport that comes to mind when you think about Fresno athletics. But thanks largely to one family, the city has remained a hotbed for talented competitors for almost 60 years. Haruo Imamura, his four sons and his granddaughter have each brought national titles home to Fresno. The second and third generations won dozens of junior titles, and one son, Rodney, was even an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team in 1992.
Now, as the 83-year-old patriarch battles cancer, his family is hoping for one more milestone: Journeying to Tokyo in 2020 to watch their youngest black belt, Miranda, compete in the Olympics.
Imamura started treatment for colon cancer on Jan. 5.
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“I met with the doctor, and he asked what I wanted out of (my treatment),” Imamura said. “I told him give me about four years. I’d be happy with that.
“It’s the last chance, so I’ll try,” he said.
Olympic accolades have eluded both Imamura and his students. He first came to Fresno in the 1950s as part of a West Coast tour that brought Japanese judo competitors to the United States.
He preferred Fresno to larger cities like San Francisco because it was a smaller university town like his native Tenri in Japan’s Nara Prefecture. He eventually moved to Fresno in 1958 to attend school at Fresno City College, where he would win a collegiate national championship.
In the Olympics, countries send only one competitor and one alternate for each weight division.
Imamura was a top competitor in his prime – a time in which judoists were not separated into weight classes, meaning he routinely beat much larger men. However, judo was not an Olympic sport until 1964, so he never got a chance to compete.
But that’s not to say his judo career didn’t have its perks. His wife Sumiko, a Dinuba native, first saw his picture on April 28, 1960, in a Fresno Bee story chronicling his championship run. Imamura’s sons, Richard and Randy, said she decided she had to meet him, so she sought him out at the judo club where he competed.
Imamura stayed in America, teaching judo throughout the central San Joaquin Valley. As his four boys began ramping up their own judo careers as children in the 1970s, Imamura took over Fresno Judo Club. The move was necessary, he said, because other local clubs did not follow the guidelines and training protocols necessary for international competition.
“It’s six days a week with trips to Japan every year to train and compete,” Randy Imamura said.
“He dragged us everywhere,” Richard Imamura added.
Richard remembers Randy, the youngest brother, getting the worst of it. “He was in junior high when we were competing in college,” Richard said. “He would get thrown around a lot.”
Randy remembers one week of training in which Richard choked him until he lost consciousness – twice.
But the brothers agree this lifestyle, while temporarily painful, taught them valuable skills that have translated to success outside the gym.
“It’s one of those rare sports where it’s not about strength,” Randy Imamura said. “It’s about using your opponent’s force in your favor. And that taught me sometimes you just can’t hit things head-on.”
To that end, Richard and Randy now run their father’s club as volunteers. Rodney, the Olympic alternate, teaches and coaches judo at Sacramento State. As judo popularity has declined steadily in the Valley over the years, the club now offers more beginning-level courses and non-contact training.
That makes things a little tough for Miranda. The 21-year-old reigning collegiate champion brought a title to Fresno State, where she and another student are the university’s only competitors in the sport.
She trains in her family gym, and her father – the last Fresno State student to win a national judo title – is her coach. She has one training partner and has to travel to San Jose State for any sort of competition.
Miranda Imamura won her first junior national title in 2004.
“I was born into it, and I love the sport,” Miranda said. She considered going to San Jose State, which has an active judo program, but wanted to stay at her family’s alma mater. She hopes to apply for Fresno State’s competitive nursing program.
The four-time junior national champion hopes to make the Olympics, but her grandfather is quick to point out that her education is more important.
“Judo is not professional,” Haruo Imamura said. “A lot of athletes are looking for big money, but we do it just because we love the sport. Money doesn’t give satisfaction. It’s more internal.”
Imamura, one of only two ninth-degree judo black belts living in the United States, believes the physical training, respect and discipline learned through the sport are more valuable than money or championships.
“Parents love sending their children (to judo),” he said. “My judo players are successful. They learn respect and hard work. I’ve never had a student involved in any crime. All the judo players I teach have good grades.”
“Maybe my philosophy is working,” Imamura added with a laugh.
Although the family now measures success by the character of its students, producing an Olympian is still in the back of everyone’s minds.
“She’s like our Luke Skywalker,” Richard Imamura said of his niece, misquoting “Star Wars” a bit. “She’s our only hope.”