Valerie Wang Shihan
Yamanoshita Dojo Cho
I come from a military family. My dad was a career military officer who had started out as a private, and worked his way up through the ranks to become a senior officer. When I was in 7th grade, my mom was flipping through a photo album, and showed me a picture of my dad with the Fort Hollobird, MD, Judo Club. He was wearing his gi and a brown belt, no smile. The picture was taken just before my parents were married and my dad stopped training.
When I saw the picture, I suddenly realized this was a way to get to spend more time with my dad, who spent long hours at work and then brought more work home with him. So I asked him if he'd teach me Judo. He got out his Manual of Kodokan Judo, and showed me the ukemi pictures. Then he took me to the Ft. Monmouth gym and started teaching me how to fall and basic techniques. He found a Judo class at the local YMCA, where my first black belt teacher was Okubo Sensei. When Okubo Sensei returned to Japan, my dad and an instructor at the Signal Corps School on Fort Monmouth, Dr. Paul Turse, founded the Fort Monmouth Judo Club. We trained in an old WWII gym that was freezing in the winter and hot in the summer. The rubber foam mats would get really hard in the winter. Turse Sensei would come to practice early and do standing rolls on the mats to try to soften them up. He'd also work on karate katas, and as he had been a collegiate wrestler, we did a lot of ground work.
I stopped training in Judo after we moved to my dad's next duty station outside of DC. I wanted to do high school sports like track and field hockey (which I wasn't very good at). My dad kept training, and he eventually became a national-level Judo referee, and attained the rank of Rokudan. He trained at least twice a week right up to the last few months of his life.
But I didn't do any more martial arts until after I left the Army quite a few years later. I wanted something that would help fill a gap I felt when I left the military. I found the Richmond, Virginia Suenaka school of Aikido through a friend, and was hooked from the first night I stepped on the mat. I already knew how to do rolls from Judo, which was a big help, but I was the world's slowest, least coordinated student. I just didn't pick things up very quickly. I had to go slowly and go over a technique a lot before it stuck, so I attended every practice and worked on taiso and kata at home.
My dad's example, and that of my judo teachers, taught me the ethos of Japanese martial arts at a fairly young age. That helped me be comfortable enough on the mat to persist, even though I didn't start Aikido until I was 31. It helped that I was used to being one of a few women around a bunch of guys. And I'm pretty stubborn. Most important is that Sensei's Aikido works for everyone. He'll answer questions and doesn't mind if it takes us a long time to learn. He's patient and forbearing, and tries hard to help us understand not just the techniques, but also the ethos of Aikido. Like O'Sensei, he believes that both women and men can and should train in Aikido.