A young woman recently approached Jim Nieto and told him matter-of-factly that she wanted to compete in the Olympics.
He wasn’t entirely sure how to react. The longtime Santa Monica judo coach didn’t want to be rude, but he was in disbelief. Reaching the biggest stage in international sports takes much more than talking about it, of course, and Nieto chalked up the woman’s statement as one about a childhood fantasy that should’ve expired by now.
“I looked at her like she was naive,” he said. “People in the Olympics have been training since they were children.”
But Nieto soon learned more about the young woman. Her name is Joud Fahmy. She’s 21years old. She’s been in Santa Monica for about a year. Her father is a diplomat. She holds Saudi Arabia citizenship. And she’s serious about trying to participate in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro with that country’s judo team.
Fahmy’s hope stems from what happened leading up to the 2012 Olympics, when Saudi Arabia bowed to international pressure and allowed Wojdan Shaherkani to compete in judo. It was the first time a woman represented that country in the Olympics.
Fahmy is inexperienced relative to other judo athletes around the world, but the dearth of Saudi women competing in the sport means she might have a chance to do what Shaherkani did in London three years ago.
And, according to Nieto, she’s up to the task. Fahmy practices several times each week with Nieto, a fixture at the Santa Monica Family YMCA since 1967.
“She’s been training, and she’s doing remarkably well,” he said.
Although Nieto initially balked at the idea of Fahmy competing in the Olympics, he’s an appropriate conduit for her athletic aspirations.
Indeed, over the last 40-plus years, he’s fought to make judo more inclusive.
Born in Venice with clubbed feet, Nieto spend much of his childhood in Albuquerque, which he said his parents chose in part because of the medical care they found for him there. Nieto then returned to Southern California and studied to become a nurse.
A gymnast in college, Nieto took a martial arts class at the local YMCA when a friend offered to get him in for free. The experience led him into competition and, eventually, into coaching.
But for years, Nieto said, he struggled to conform to what he believed were outdated traditions.
“Being a stubborn mule, I never could understand some of the rules,” he said. “I was labeled a black sheep.”
Nieto recalled one contest in Long Beach where he confronted organizers because they weren’t allowing girls to compete. Another tournament was stopped, he said, because officials took issue with the fact that Nieto’s girls were wearing the same plain belts the boys were wearing instead of ones with stripes.
“I’d said to [the girls], ‘You earned them just like the boys did,'” Nieto said.
Gender-equality battles aside, Nieto speaks at length about the benefits of judo and jujitsu for people of all ages. It emphasizes respect and discipline, he said, not to mention physical fitness and mental concentration. And the lessons hold true for the 4- and 5-year-olds in his “Mighty Mites” class as well as for teenagers and adults.
Parents have told Nieto that their kids’ grades improved after starting martial arts. Youngsters who are being teased learn to defend themselves, Nieto said, but they also build confidence so they never feel the need to.
The coach once got a call from a woman who had trained with him years earlier and thanked him for teaching her how to break a fall. She had just slipped off a ladder, Nieto said.
“It’s all about focusing your mind on what you’re doing,” he said. “I teach in a dance room with a mirrored wall, so you can see yourself, and the kids can get distracted by that. But they learn how to focus their mind and pay attention without looking in the mirror. I’ve seen it work. Kids come in, and they start to pay attention.”
Focus doesn’t seem to be an issue for Fahmy. In early May, she took second place in her age division at the state judo championships at Cerritos College. A week later, she won a title at the West Coast Invitational. Last month, she claimed top honors at the Nanka fall tournament.
As for her Olympic dream?
“That’s a very strong possibility,” Nieto said.