Gary Steward is a fourth-degree black belt in the martial art of judo, and he could probably crumple just about any man in Snohomish County in a matter of seconds.
And yet it takes only one image to bring Steward to his knees, hopelessly fighting back the tears.
Eighteen years ago, when Steward was still serving as lead instructor (“sensei”) at NAS Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, he invited an Olympian named Mike Swain to speak to his young students. After getting Swain’s autograph on a belt, an 8-year-old judo enthusiast named Marti Malloy tugged at Steward’s Gi robe and said six words.
“I want to be an Olympian,” Malloy said on that day in the early 1990s.
And thus began the journey of Malloy, now 26 years old … and the recent recipient of a bronze medal at the London Games.
Steward, who lives in Marysville and now helps instruct at North Sound Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Lake Stevens, chokes up at the thought of how far his longtime pupil has come.
“Just a real thrill to watch Marti do what she has worked toward doing her whole life,” Steward said via telephone last week. “Very rewarding.”
As for Milloy’s meeting with Swain all those years ago, Steward could be heard choking up at the thought of it.
“Her goals were set,” he said of Milloy’s Olympic dream that started nearly two decades ago. “It’s kind of a gift or a curse when you set your goals that early. You just go after it.”
Steward, who took Malloy and her three older brothers into his gym when she was just 5 years old, is one of many people throughout Snohomish and Island counties who were bursting with pride after the Oak Harbor native stood on the medal podium in London last week. Friends, family and the judo community were overcome with emotion, while the sport received some rare attention in these parts.
Troy Leis, who has been volunteering his time to run Snohomish Dojo Judo Club at Snohomish High School since 1993, watched at home while one of the most well-renowned judo competitors in this area made her run to bronze in the 57-kilogram weight class.
“It was pretty cool,” Leis said.
Leis said Malloy’s performance and the attention that came with it could have an effect in terms of participation at local judo clinics, but he added that the sport thrives on smaller groups to maximize the experience.
When asked whether he might have to turn people away, now that the sport has gained some local popularity, he chuckled.
“We’d never do that,” he said. “It would be a good problem to have. In the long term, my goal is to open up more programs (in Snohomish County).”
Leis was quick to point out that Seattle hosted the first official judo clinic in the United States 112 years ago and added that the Pacific Northwest is among this country’s most successful hubs. The website JudoNW.com lists 10 official clinics in the state of Washington.
Steward boasted that judo is the second-most-popular sport in the world, trailing only soccer, and added all eight of his students that came in with Malloy went on to earn black belts in the sport. Leis estimated that there are “fewer than 100” black belts in the entire Snohomish County.
The tight-knit judo community in these parts gave Malloy quite a following during her run to bronze. Steward and Leis said they both watched her matches via live internet stream, cheering on every throw, choke and arm-bar through the late-night and early-morning hours.
While Leis was beaming with local pride after the bronze-medal match, he was quick to point out that judo is not always about wins and losses. It’s a sport based on discipline — punching and kicking aren’t a part of judo — and Leis said the biggest pride he has as a coach comes from watching the sport turn people’s lives around.
Leis himself was “on my own, from a very young age” before finding the sport and turning his life in the right direction. He likes to cite the judo axiom that “if you get thrown down eight times, get back up nine.” Leis added that “one of the first things we teach (in judo) is how to fall.”
And so while watching Malloy earn a bronze medal was quite a thrill for Leis and the local judo community, he said there are countless other success stories out there that have had nothing to do with getting one’s hand raised at the end of an important match.
In judo, Leis said, the goal is “not to just be a champion on the mat but to be a champion in life.”
But the local judo community is still pretty excited about the bronze medal that’s on its way to the Pacific Northwest. Steward is especially proud of the 26-year-old Oak Harbor native who set out to be an Olympian 18 years ago and made her dream come true.
In some ways, he still sees Malloy as that tough, little 5-year old walked into his gym at NAS Whidbey Island more than two decades ago.
“She was always a hammer,” said Steward, who now coaches with Malloy’s younger brother, Zane. “You could hardly videotape her matches because she’d just grab her opponents and throw them. You hardly had time to turn the video cameras on.
“… She’s one strong little girl. I still call her a little girl, but she’s one strong smaller woman. She’s a powerhouse.”