In 1959, Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi won a YMCA judo championship in New York. Kanokogi’s coach had asked her to fill in for an injured teammate. Women weren’t welcome in the competition, so Kanokogi pretended to be a man. When organizers learned this, they took away her medal. The experience “instilled a feeling in me that no woman should have to go through this again,” Kanokogi told the New York Times, years later. She made it her mission to end discrimination against women in sports.
A law called Title IX helped bring change. It was passed 50 years ago, in 1972. The law was designed to end gender discrimination in educational programs funded by the United States government. Today, it ensures that girls and women have access to equal opportunities in sports. Kanokogi was a trailblazer in this fight.
The Woman Behind the Fight
Rusty Kanokogi was born on July 30, 1935. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York. That’s where she joined a judo class. According to her daughter, Jean Kanokogi, judo can help a person grow—“spiritually, emotionally, and physically.” Jean shared her mom’s story with TIME for Kids. Judo was a big part of that story.
With few options to compete as a woman in the U.S., Kanokogi went to study judo in Japan, in 1962. Eventually, she was invited to train and spar with men. After several months, Kanokogi returned to the U.S. and began her fight for equality in judo.
Kanokogi spent long days raising money and demanding that judo associations hold women’s events. Her goal was to get women’s judo into the Olympics. Men’s judo had been an Olympic sport since 1964. One requirement for a sport to be added to the Games is that there be a world championship. So in 1980, Kanokogi helped pay for the first women’s judo world championship. She later threatened to sue the International Olympic Committee for discrimination. Finally, more than 20 years after men’s judo, women’s judo became an Olympic sport. Kanokogi coached the women’s team at the 1988 Games. Today, the Olympics include seven women’s judo events.
Remembering a Legend
In 2009, Kanokogi received a medal and an apology. It was the medal that had been taken away 50 years earlier. Jean Kanokogi says her mom never dwelled on the loss of the award. Instead, she “just kept moving on.” Its return shows that “justice will ultimately prevail,” Jean says. A few months after she got her medal back, Kanokogi passed away. But her story lives on. In 2020, Jean helped publish her mom’s memoir.
Jean wants her mother to be remembered for her fairness and tenacity . “Whether you were the janitor or you were the First Lady, she treated everybody the same,” Jean says. This year, on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, people will look back at the perseverance of Rusty Kanokogi.
“Rusty inspired the sports world to think differently about the notion of women in competitive sports,” Lance Nading, president of U.S.A. Judo said after she died. “Her legacy will live on for generations of athletes to come.”
A Dynamic Duo
Billie Jean King is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She learned at a young age that female athletes were often treated unequally. In 1974, she founded the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) to help ensure girls’ access to sports. King met Rusty Kanokogi at a WSF event. They became lifelong friends and fighters for Title IX. King wrote the foreword for Kanokogi’s memoir. Kanokogi “influenced all of us,” King writes. “She was always in the solution.”