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Athletes compete in the ‘gentle way’ at USA Judo tournament in Spokane on Sunday

Brynn and Haley Buskerud, dressed in their white gis, bowed deeply to each other and the audience before silently meeting each other in the middle of the mat for a USA Judo “kata” competition on Sunday afternoon at the Podium in Spokane.

The twin sisters performed a slow-motion dance as they grappled , lifted each other up in the air, paused and lowered themselves back down. Spectators watched from the bleachers in the hushed sports arena.

The twins, of North Bend, Oregon, were among several hundred athletes from across the country who traveled to Spokane for USA Judo’s Senior National Championships. Among them were Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.

“Kata” is a Japanese word that refers to the practice and form used in martial arts where athletes are scored on their technical and athletic skill, not the outcome of a match. It’s a far cry from the “shiai” competition that was held on Saturday and filled the Podium’s bleachers with cheering and applause as competitors squared off in hand-to-hand combat.

“There’s no kicking or punching,” 16-year-old Sienna Horita-Nguyen said of judo. “It’s focused on off-balancing your opponents.”

“You kind of use their movement to your advantage,” Kira Maeda, also 16, and the best friend of Horita-Nguyen, said as the two watched Sunday’s kata competition after having competed earlier.

The martial art translates to “the gentle way,” Maeda explained.

The two Kirkland, Washington, teens began practicing judo together before they were 10 years old. The practice requires a full spectrum of athletic skills, including strength, flexibility and stability, they said.

It also has practical uses for self-defense.

“If any situation were able to happen, we would have the skills to get out of it,” Maeda said.

Judo teacher Ron Takeya, right, demonstrates a self-defense technique that is part of the goshin jutsu kata against his teammate Stephen Hall on Sunday at the Podium in Spokane. Takeya and Hall traveled from Hawaii to compete. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Despite judo’s “gentleness,” Maeda and Horita-Nguyen have both suffered a couple of concussions each, they said. Additionally, Maeda tore her MCL after attempting to throw an opponent last year, and Horita-Nguyen injured her elbow in a similar fashion a couple of years before that.

Horita-Nguyen’s mother, Chihiro Horita-Nguyen, said her father used to practice judo in Japan, where she is from. She likes the physicality and discipline of the practice, she said. It’s also a supportive community, she said.

“Because we’re both girls, it’s a very tight-knit community,” her daughter said. “You kind of grow up with those people.”

Judo’s origins trace back to the early days of Japan’s samurai warriors and is based on the principles of a certain style of jujitsu. Judo was founded in the late 19th century by Kano Jigoro, and in 1902 established itself in the United States with its first American dojo in Seattle.

For that reason, judo has had a strong presence in the Pacific Northwest, explained Keith Bryant, CEO of USA Judo, which is based in Colorado Springs.

“It’s considered one of the most dynamic of the martial arts,” he said.

The weekend tournament featured the most advanced competition for USA Judo’s top athletes before the Summer Olympics in Paris next year, Bryant said. Judo made its Olympic debut in the 1960s.

Bryant described judo as a “lifestyle sport” that teaches its practitioners as much about self-defense as it does honor, respect, integrity, discipline and courage.

“You’re trying to be combative, but you’re not looking to hurt anyone,” he said. “If you watch it, you may not think it’s that gentle, but all the things are done with a duty of care.”

The Buskerud twins said it’s really about “finding balance.”

“When you get a throw right, it’s just magic,” said Haley Buskerud.

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