Not only does Washington have the oldest judo school in the nation, it also has the oldest established high-school judo program. "Who knew, in the...

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Not only does Washington have the oldest judo school in the nation, it also has the oldest established high-school judo program.

“Who knew, in the sleepy little town of Kent, south of Seattle?” said Philip Davis, varsity judo coach at Kentridge High School.

The program started in 1955, established by football and baseball coach George Wilson at the urging of many Japanese Americans and Kent community members. Wilson had learned judo in the Marines and was seen using some moves to stop a fight at a party. “It was an agrarian area” back then, Davis said. “There were a lot of nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans, who wanted something their kids could get involved in and keep their cultural connection.”

Wilson recruited a tenured professor from the University of California, Berkeley, George Uchida, to help. And as Kent School District expanded, so did the judo program. Now, many of the district schools — including Kentridge, Kent-Meridian, Kentlake and Kentwood — have judo players.

“A lot of kids that don’t fit into football or baseball, judo is that alternative sport for them,” said Davis, who coaches on average 30 to 40 students each year in judo at Kentridge.

The program reflects both Wilson’s and judo’s ingrained character of respect. It’s not about winning, but about citizenship. So, for a high-school coach, Davis is surprisingly soft-spoken, choosing instead to let the team captain both compliment and reprimand the group.

“I don’t come in and wag my finger,” said Davis, 59, who is retiring this year after coaching judo for the past 24 years. “They learn by osmosis and association. … It’s a self-propagating culture.”

The captain, 18-year-old Quinton Beedle, said the experience has taught him confidence. He started judo at the age of 8 and was scared to compete, but practicing with peers made it more enjoyable.

And unlike other high-school sports, there are no tryouts. Even if a player can’t pass requirements — pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups — they won’t be cut. Davis stresses the need to keep trying, so many stay after practice, arms hanging on the bar, as their friends push them up for a pull-up.

“In high school, much is peer-driven, so if their friends are in it, they want to be in it,” Davis said. “A lot of females try it out with friends. It is a place they can go and feel some sort of empowerment.”

That was the case for Mikaela Cekalski — all 105 pounds of her.

“I joined on a whim because I was told anyone can do it,” said Cekalski, a senior and blue belt at Kentwood. “I’m a tiny little person, and I’m usually told in sports that you can’t do it because you’re tiny. But judo worked out really well.”

Her coach, Doug Graham, a Kent-Meridian alum, is a two-time gold medalist at the Pan American Games and a silver medalist at the World University Games.

“I really like working with the students,” said Graham, a math teacher who has been coaching since 1973. “I like watching them grow and see their response to coaching. … Their grades improve during the season, and they learn to focus. The application of judo is not only on the mat, but off, too.”

Graham was one of the most successful students who had been coached by program founder Wilson. Said Graham, Wilson “really knew how to motivate people. He had a very sharp wit and a sharp sense of humor.”

In addition to establishing the program, Wilson also created a high-school committee for the U.S. Judo Federation, and helped model Hawaii’s now long-standing high-school judo program after Kent’s.

Wilson died four years ago, but his legacy is felt throughout the area. Every year, Kent schools hold a George L. Wilson Memorial Challenge Judo Cup.

And the coaches, many Kent high-school alumni, have carried on Wilson’s goals of propagating judo. Next year the Puget Sound Judo League, created in 2006, will encompass nine schools across Washington. And California may be in the loop in the future, as well.

Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or mliu@seattletimes.com