Sumo Cum Laude

Class of ’02 | Three years ago, during an introductory judo lesson, Katherine Hurley C’02 was lying on her back, having been repeatedly flipped by her 66-year-old instructor. He asked if she would like to try something else.

“She was okay at judo, but I thought she could use more of her power and size in sumo,” recalls the instructor, Yoshisada Yonezuka, referring to Hurley’s 300-pound frame. The suggestion couldn’t have come from a more credible source: Yonezuka had twice coached the U.S. Olympic judo team (1988, 1992) and is currently a vice president of the International Sumo Federation.

Hurley was intrigued. “I just thought it would be funny, and very, very unusual—which is what I look for in anything I do,” she says.

Now Hurley stays fit by slapping, shoving, and falling on top of men twice a week.

She drives two hours each way to practice, takes her gear from a communal set of loincloths, and goes home drenched in strangers’ sweat. On off-days, she sprints between jetties near her beach home in New Jersey and does lunges with a heavy bag on her shoulders.

All for the love of sumo.

Hurley was no stranger to rigorous physical competition, having rowed crew and spent two years as a hammer-thrower at Penn. “I learned from the 20-minute ‘erg test’ [in crew] that they couldn’t do anything to me in sumo that was worse than that,” she says. “The erg test is the most intense, excruciating pain you’ve ever felt in your life. The level of focus required to get ready for that test is the same level of focus that I apply to getting ready for a sumo match.”

Which is not to say that sumo came easily to her.

“At first, I would go head-to-head and push her right out of the ring,” said Leonard Thomas, one of her first sparring partners. “She had a 40-pound weight advantage, but her balance wasn’t good. Now she’s much more powerful and aggressive.”

In her first competition, Hurley won the women’s heavyweight title at the 2003 North American Championships in Vancouver. In June 2005 she claimed gold at the U.S. Nationals, and with it earned the right to represent her country at the 2005 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, in October.

Despite her progress, not everyone in her life wholeheartedly embraced the idea of the Ivy League sumo wrestler.

“When I first heard, I was terrified,” said her mother, Joanne Hurley. “I really knew nothing about the sport except that it involved very large Japanese men, a ritual, and a white piece of cloth.”

Unlike professional sumo—which is dominated by the Japanese and forbids women from entering the ring—amateur sumo is practiced in 77 nations and has officially included women at its world championships since 2001. Adding women was a vital step toward appealing to the International Olympic Committee, the organization that determines which sports are added to the Olympic program. (Sumo has yet to be accepted.)

Like the men, women compete in four weight classes: lightweight (less than 143 pounds), middleweight (143 pounds to 176 pounds), heavyweight (more than 176 pounds), and “open,” which includes athletes of all sizes. Women also are permitted to wear leotards under their mawashis, or loincloths.

When Hurley entered the ring last summer at the national championships in North Bergen, New Jersey, nearly a dozen of her friends and relatives sat in the front row to show support and satisfy their curiosity.

“It was kind of disturbing to watch first-hand—especially when it’s your sister,” said her older brother, Joe Jr. “But she handled herself very well and she was quick.”

“It was eye-opening,” said her father, Joe Hurley. “It’s really a very athletic event. There’s a lot of leverage and turns. It’s not all strength. She definitely exceeded my expectations.”

Hurley won handily and gave the gold medal to her mother—who is now a fan.

Still, in Osaka, Hurley was not favored to become the second American ever to win a world amateur sumo title. (The first had been Yonezuka’s protégé, Emanuel Yarbrough, in 1995.)

In her first match, she faced Russia’s Olesya Kovalenko, the 2002 world champion. “I remember getting down on the mat and thinking, ‘She doesn’t look as big as she did in Germany,’” where they had wrestled three months earlier. Just then, the official commenced the bout. “I didn’t get off the line as quickly as I should have,” Hurley admits. “She hit me first. I tried to push her back and my knee twisted. I fell on top of it. She fell on top of me. In sumo, that’s a victory.”

Afterwards, she recalls: “I could barely get up to bow. The pain was excruciating.”

Back home, Hurley was diagnosed with a torn ACL and meniscus in her right knee.

Still, she says: “I had a great time. The injury will make me more diligent in my training. I want to get even more serious for this.”

—Aimee Berg

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/06

Profiles : Events :
Notes : Obituaries

Marc Simon documents life After Innocence
Michael San Phillip and Jill Abbott’s family ties
Laurie Burrows Grad’s gift for cooking
Sumo wrestler Katherine Hurley
Penn’s African American “Firsts”

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