Taira Sakamoto, a senior at Samohi, had never been to Europe until last month, when she traveled to the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina with her dad to compete in the Cadets World Judo Championship.
Sakamoto, who has been doing judo since the age of five, qualified for the competition by placing second at the Junior Olympic National Championships in San Jose, CA this June.
At the recent international competition she competed against athletes from Greece and Uzbekistan in the Women’s 52 kg category. She said some of the rules at the international level were different and took some getting used to, but she feels she gained a lot from the experience.
“Even though we didn’t all speak the same language, seeing all these girls, with my same interests, all in one place was just amazing,” she said.
In addition to Judo, Sakamoto also wrestles and is the captain of Samohi’s co-ed wrestling team. Growing up doing these two sports, she was aware of the lack of female presence.
“They’re both male dominated sports, so not having many female role models around me was difficult,” she said.
Over the last few years, however, she has seen this changing and has been a part of expanding the sport for girls at Samohi.
“The girl’s program has grown significantly,” she said. “It started with three girls, me included, and now we’re promoting it more – it’s the number one women’s fastest growing sport, I believe.”
The Samohi team now has 15 girls and, according to data from the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the number of women who participate in high school wrestling has grown from 804 in 1994 to over 28,000 as of 2021.
“Having 15 new incoming girls this year is just amazing and being able to lead them is like a whole different experience,” Sakamoto said.
She said the wrestling team practices everyday, with morning weight practices starting at 6:30 a.m. In addition to her Judo training, which she does at Hollywood Judo, it’s a lot to juggle.
“But honestly, being in these sports has made my high-school experience,” she said. “All of the people I’ve met through them, all the connections I have now, it wouldn’t be the same without this.”
Sakamoto is now in the process of applying to colleges and is unsure if she will continue competing in either sport, especially because not many colleges have a judo program. Regardless, she said she has learned a lot through both that she’ll carry with her and be able to apply throughout life, including determination, perseverance and overcoming challenges.
“Especially with judo, people think it’s very rough, but it’s mostly self defense,” she said. “You use what your opponent gives you, it’s not just like ‘oh the stronger person wins,’ even if someone’s a lot heavier, you can still use their momentum against them and beat them.”