Commando Training at Age 58

By 12570 Mike Kennedy

“Keep your spirits up, and never give up.”

A direct order from Drill Sergeant Major Fournier to his recruits, 1976

30 December 2015

I am exhausted and in pain as I write these words. My knees ache, my elbows hurt, my hips and shoulders are sore, and my arms and legs are covered in an elaborate rainbow of scrapes, scratches, and bruises. That’s what four days of hard, relentless fighting will do to you.

I haven’t come from a war, but from what might well be the next closest thing. For the last four days, I’ve been participating in the Judo Ontario Christmas Training camp. They’ve been four of the toughest, most gruelling days I have ever gone through – in a good 40 years, of course. And now that it’s over, I’m physically hurting from the aftereffects. But mentally and emotionally, I’m feeling better right now than I have in a long, long time.

What the hell is a guy like me, a man who turned 58 this past November, and someone who was never athletically talented even in the best of times, doing practicing a martial art like judo ? At a time when most guys my age are spending the holiday season with a warm cup of coffee, reading the paper or watching TV, what am I doing in the middle of the every morning of the last four days, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath ? What do I have to prove ? Why am I putting myself through this, especially at my age ?

There must be a reason, I’ll leave that one for you to decide. But let me tell you the story of what I have encountered over four of the greatest days I have ever had.


Day One of our training started out on 27 December, bright and early at 09:00. The students and instructors assembled in the main gymnasium of the Pan Am Centre in Scarborough, not far from where I live. At the beginning of class we line up on the tatami, the gigantic mat on which we will do our training, students on one side, instructors on the other. Looking around the room, I am surrounded by a sea of young people, the vast majority of whom must be a good four decades younger than I am. As a blue belt, I am one of the lowest-ranking students in attendance. A number of my fellow participants are elite athletes, some of whom compete in judo at the national and international levels.

The sensei – our chief instructor – calls us to attention. “Sensei” is a Japanese word that in the martial arts world is universally used as the term by which one addresses an instructor. Literally translated, it means, “He who has gone before.” In reality, the sensei is exactly like an RSM. The tatami is his parade square, the domain over which he is lord and master, the place where his word is the rule of law. And much like an RSM, the sensei’s job is to lead and to teach; he’s the leader who is there to pass on what he himself learned to the next generation of warriors; he’s the Rock of Gibralter who serves as an indomitable source of strength, stability, and wisdom for all the young soldiers who follow.

One look at this guy, and you immediately know that he fills the bill. A Brazilian gentleman who now resides in New Brunswick, he is a fourth-degree black belt who has fought successfully in numerous world-class competitions. As we will soon discover, his knowledge of judo is encyclopaedic; his fluency in English somewhat less so. In fact, in chatting informally with him, I discover that he’s more comfortable in French than he is in English, and over the next few days I will have the opportunity to put my own bilingual skills to good use in translating some of the finer points on his behalf.

The instructors and students bow in to begin the class. Bowing in judo holds the same degree of significance as does the hand salute in the military. It is a sign of mutual respect, trust, and confidence between those who lead, and those who follow. Every judo match, whether in practice or in competition, begins and ends with both participants exchanging a bow. And it is a time-honoured tradition in judo that at the end of a match, participants will shake hands, as an expression of comradeship and appreciation for each other’s efforts.

First we start with the warm-ups, which must be some of the most fiendishly creative exercises ever devised by man. Perhaps not surprisingly, at my age, I’m not able to do as much as my younger colleagues. Where they do ten squats, I might maybe do six. In exercises that require us to race from one end of the tatami to the other, I invariably bring up the rear. But so what ? Somebody inevitably has to come last. And at least I am out here, participating, and thus far, staying alive, and holding up not badly at all.

Then we get down to the real business. Osoto-gari. O-goshi. Tai-otoshi. Deashi-barai. Tomoe-nage. Uchi-mata. Ouchi-gari. Harai-goshi. Ippon-seoi-nage. Tsuri-goshi. Kosoto-gake. The list goes on and on.

To the uninitiated, these will no doubt sound like a list of incomprehensible – not to mention unpronounceable – Japanese terms. But to a judo practitioner, they will be immediately recognizable as being some of the most commonly-used throws in the art. Just like drill moves, they are actions that are repeated thousands and thousands of times, to exacting standards, and in an endless search for perfection. And in the hands of a skilled judoka who knows what he or she is doing, all of the above are techniques that are crisp, powerful, and devastatingly effective.

I ought to know, because over the last four days, I have been on the receiving end of every single one of them.

Reading these words, you might ask yourself, what really happens in a judo bout ? To the casual observer, a competition between two judoka might well look like something akin to an elaborately choreographed dance, a graceful exchange between two lovers clad in flowing white gis, the uniform in which the art is customarily practiced. But make no mistake: in real life, once you are in it, it is a fight to the finish, one that is characterised by mutual respect, but at the same time, a supremely demanding test of both participants’ skill, knowledge, and determination.

As always, you start out with the bow to your partner. Then, you fight to take your grip, typically one firmly on the collar of your opponent’s uniform, the other firmly grasping the sleeve. From there, both combatants struggle for three things: first, kuzushi, the ability to break your opponent’s balance; then, tsukuri, the entry that positions you to throw, and finally – if you are good, and lucky as well – kake, the actual throw itself. In every engagement the partners play the respective roles of tori – the one who executes the technique – and uke – the partner who receives it by breaking their fall on the mat.

It’s a good thing that the surface of the mat we were training was soft and easy to fall upon, because over the past four days, I became very well acquainted with it.

Perhaps it might be useful to pause at this juncture, and talk a bit about judo itself. In contrast to other forms of martial arts, some of which are thousands of years old, judo is a relatively modern martial art. It was officially created in 1882 by Dr. Jigaro Kano, a diminutive Japanese gentleman who barely stood five feet tall. Dr. Kano was trained not as a soldier but rather as a teacher, and he developed judo based on his study and adaptation of techniques drawn from more traditional Japanese martial arts such as jiu-jitsu. His vision was to create a new form of martial art that would be both effective and at the same time safe to practice, and most importantly, one that would contribute to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of his students.

Today, judo is an internationally standardized martial art that is practiced by an estimated 20 million people around the world. It has been an officially recognized Olympic sport since 1964, and it’s one in which Canadian competitors have chalked up some impressive successes. But to me, perhaps the most important defining characteristic of the art is reflected in the core values that it stands for. Unlike the brutal and gratuitous violence that is propagated by exploitive activities like UFC, judo is an activity that’s grounded in a shared sense of respect and honour among the participants. Safety and strict adherence to the tenets of fair play and good sportsmanship are of paramount importance. As our Sensei for the training camp emphasized to us at the outset, “In judo, you never hurt your partner. Never.”

Or, as Dr. Kano himself repeatedly noted over the course of his lifetime, the most important guiding principle of the art is “Mutual welfare and benefit of all.” Just as we were taught at the College, in judo, we’re all in this together.

I myself started in judo comparatively late in life; I was 42, and originally, I started mainly for the benefit of my son, who was six at the time. We stumbled upon a small recreational club located in our neighbourhood, began practicing with them one night a week, and eventually spent nine years training together. When my son hit the teenage years, he developed other interests which he decided to pursue. I continued plodding along, slowly climbing my way up the ranks. Today, fifteen years later and something that I never expected, the black belt is now actually within sight.

So, you might ask, what did I learn from the past four days ? I have to admit that there have been times I have woken up in the morning asking myself, how much longer before this hell is all over with ? (Sound familiar ?) But much as I struggled with the demands of the training camp itself, once it was all over, I came away with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment – it was like finishing the recruit obstacle race all over again. As I look back now, I’m really glad that I took the plunge, and decided to participate. I think I learned something about judo – perhaps more than I actually realize – but I took away some other tremendously valuable lessons as well.

For one thing, I learned some lessons about today’s generation of young people. One sometimes gets the feeling that it is commonly assumed that we are living in a society where the current generation of young Canadians are collectively going to pot glued in front of a computer screen. That may well be true in some instances, but it is certainly not the case with the young people I saw at the training camp. These kids – most of whom are younger than our recruits – are fit, alert, and absolutely determined. Physically and mentally, they are as tough and as disciplined as any cadet I ever met at the College. Watching these young men and women train was an inspiration; being able to train alongside them was an honour.

Another lesson that I took away from the training camp is that, for some people at least, age is only a number, and one that is largely meaningless. One of the highlights of the last four days was having the opportunity to encounter one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. As young immigrant to Canada, he began studying judo in Hamilton in 1960. Today, 55 years later, at the age of 82, he holds a 5th degree black belt, and continues to instruct on a regular basis. In the last competition in which he participated, he won the World Master’s Championship. He was 77 years of age at the time.

Speaking with this individual, you immediately realize that he is one of the finest gentlemen one could ever hope to meet. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that he stands equal in every respect to the immortal #2759 Sir Charles Forbes, who was the one who uttered the timeless quote that, “Destiny works in ways we will never be able to understand.”

And finally, maybe I learned some things about myself. I have never been athletically talented, and this was a limitation that I struggled mightily with during my brief time at the College. I started in judo at late age in life; I’m never going to rise to high rank, or win any competitions, and I know that. But it doesn’t matter to me. When I began this journey fifteen years ago, I never expected to get to where I am today. Along the way, I’ve met some remarkable people who today I count as being among my closest friends, and there’s no doubt that my practice of judo has added a tremendous amount of value to my life.

Perhaps I have also come to more fully appreciate the wisdom of something Sergeant Major Fournier once said to me, when we reconnected many years later after we both had left the College:

“Never forget that what you were taught as a cadet has helped you in many other things in your life, even if you did not realize it at the time.”

Much like a good sensei, the Sergeant Major was there to teach us what we needed to know to stay alive in combat. And as we all now have come to realize, Fournier taught us very well.

There’s a lot more I could tell you, but I will leave it at that. Sure, the past few days have been tough – really tough – but we all know something about tough days, and how to get though them. Yes, I’m hurting right now, but it’s nothing that a good shot of whisky won’t cure. The cuts and bruises will heal, and the pain will go away. But the memories will endure, and the sense of pride and satisfaction will remain with me for the rest of my life.

One final thing I will share with you. Over the course of the last few days, I’ve asked a number of the younger participants how old they thought I was. They’ve made some widely varying guesses, but most of them find it hard to believe that in reality I am 58.

What they really can’t believe, however, is when I tell them that when I was the same age they are now, there was no such thing as the Internet.

Truth, Duty, Valour !

Mike Kennedy