Monday, January 3, 2000
Amy Tong has hopes forBy Cindy Luis
an Olympic medal in
judo this summer
HARMONY and balance. It's the perfect state of mind and body sought by those who train in the sport of judo.
It's been a difficult balance for Amy Tong to maintain as she juggles being a student at San Jose State and an international-caliber judoka. But the hard work has paid off -- as of New Year's Day, she is officially on the U.S. Olympic Judo Team that will compete in the Sydney Games this summer.
"It hasn't hit me yet,'' said Tong, on break from school and training during the holidays. "It was something extra to celebrate on New Year's.
"My dream has always been to go to the Olympics. I remember watching (Hawaii's) Kevin Asano win the silver in 1988 (in Seoul). It was like the only judo they showed on television.''
But it was enough for Tong, who had begun her judo training just a year before at the age of 10 while living in Virginia. Her father Sam Tong, a former University of Hawaii football lineman in the early 1970s, had moved the family back east about 15 years ago to work for the U.S. Government.
He encouraged his four children to compete in sports, with Amy, the eldest, excelling in both judo and soccer.
"I think even her first sensei saw potential,'' said Sam Tong, who moved the family back to Hawaii in 1996. "We're very proud of her. This is something we hoped for and things have worked out as she's improved. I think that San Jose State has been the best place for her in that she can do judo and go to school.''
When Amy Tong first graduated from high school in Virginia, her options were to go directly to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs or to San Jose State, which recently won its 33rd national collegiate judo championship.
Tong sought the balance of mind and body.
As a freshman, she was on the nationally ranked Spartan women's soccer team as well as the judo team. A knee injury and academic demands led to Tong choosing to concentrate on judo and her biology studies.
"School is important,'' said the aspiring biology teacher. "After judo is over, what will you have without an education?
"It's been hard, doing school and judo, especially since making the national team in 1998. I started flying everywhere for the big competitions. That's why I went to school only half-time this past semester and why I'm taking the next semester off.''
The next few months will be busy for Tong as the countdown to the Summer Games begins, with international travel and training in Europe and Japan. The 5-foot-7 judoka is in the highly competitive weight class of 78-kilograms (171.6 pounds) where she is often the shortest player by 4-5 inches.
"We have high hopes for Amy in Sydney,'' U.S. judo team coach Steve Cohen said from Illinois. "Coach (Eddie) Liddie and I are putting together a training program for this year to give her the best possible chance to win a medal.
"She is a young player with tremendous potential. She has been getting international experience over the last two years and she gets better every time she competes.''
Tong trains mostly against men because few women are in her weight class. She said it helps with her technique in order to outmaneuver a stronger male.
"Amy is one of our youngest members on our Olympic team,'' said Liddie, who is at the OTC in Colorado. "She is also one of our hardest workers. Amy took over the (78k) division in the United States roughly about two years ago and hasn't taken a step backwards since.
"Now she is preparing to be the best internationally and is doing everything possible to reach that goal. This year, she will be traveling and training throughout the world to prepare to bring us back a medal for the Sydney Olympics.
"Amy is physically and mentally tough and, with preparation, she could bring us home a medal.''
Should Tong do that, she would be the first U.S. female to ever medal in judo since the sport was introduced in the 1992 Games (women's judo was a demonstration sport in the 1988 Olympics). She would also be only the third U.S. judoka to medal in the Olympics; the first was Allen Coage in 1976 then Asano in 1988.
Tong, the current national and collegiate women's champion at 78 kg, is also hoping to become the first Native Hawaiian to medal in the Olympics since the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Tong estimates she is 40 percent Hawaiian, with the remainder of her ancestry being Japanese and Chinese.
"It's been interesting going to international meets,'' she said. "I went to the World Championships in October in England and people didn't know what I was. When they think American, they think White or Black. I look sort of Asian with a tan. There was also a Chinese girl competing with the same last name.
"I tell them I'm from Hawaii and I'm Native Hawaiian. Some of them don't understand the difference, they think that anyone who lives in Hawaii is Hawaiian. Some of them at least understand what Polynesian is.
"Being Hawaiian is a source of pride for me and there haven't been many in the Olympics.''
A change in the international weight class divisions may have led to Tong getting there earlier than expected. When the classes were changed to 70 kg (154 pounds) and 78 kg, it allowed two-time Olympian and San Jose State team member Sandra Bacher to stay at the lower weight while Tong moved up.
"The 78-class is a better weight for Amy,'' said the 31-year-old Bacher, vacationing in Hawaii. "She is very strong and has very good technique. She has great potential. I don't think she'll be favored to medal but I would put her up there. She has a great fighting spirit.
"There is an advantage to being older in that you have the international experience but Amy has been in the sport for 12 years. Experience is good but younger competitors also have more energy and a go-for-it attitude where older players sometimes hold back.''
This probably will be Bacher's last Olympics. Tong is looking toward at least 2004 in Athens; she may not be the only Tong in the athlete's village.
Sister Anna, a sophomore at Kaiser, was undefeated at 136-pounds last OIA judo season and was also third in the state wrestling meet at 140 pounds. Wrestling will be introduced as a women's sport for the first time in 2004.
"I'm excited that the Games are in Australia,'' said Amy Tong. "I've never been there. And we (the U.S. judo team) will be coming back through Hawaii for a vacation.
"I'm looking at Sydney for the experience. But I'd like to surprise some people there, too.''
Weight class: 78 kg
Special AwardsCurrent U.S. national and collegiate champion.
Ranked No. 1 in the U.S.
Ranked in top three among all women judokas in the Pan American Judo Union (North & South America).
Outstanding Competitor, 1999 Collegiate Nationals
CENCO Outstanding International Female Competitor
The Medal ChartGold: 99 Senior Nationals
Gold: 99 Collegiate Nationals
Bronze: 99 Pan American Judo Union Championships
Bronze:99 Canadian Rendez Vous
Bronze: 99 Pan American Games
Bronze: 98 Maruchan U.S. International