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Sports Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 31, 2008

Two locals share a passion for “The Gentle Way”

By Jordan J. Michael

BINGHAMTON – Judo is a mixture of martial arts and self-defense. Two local practitioners know all too well what that means.

Stephen Saunders, of Voorheesville, and Jerome Spinnato, of Guilderland, who are both 29, competed on the Adirondack team in Open Men’s Judo at the Empire State Games. They practice at the same judo club.

Saunders participated in the 66KG weight class, while Spinnato jabbed his way through the 73KG weight class. Each fighter had five different matches inside Binghamton University’s East Gym on a pleasant Friday afternoon.

“A lot of people get confused about the rules of judo,” said Saunders. “It’s all about getting your opponent off balance.”

Saunders made his fourth appearance at the games. He has achieved veteran status by winning a medal every time he competes. He captured bronze medals in 2001 and 2004. He added a silver medal last year and he duplicated that feat in this year.

“I really wanted that gold medal,” said Saunders. “After winning two bronze and a silver, it was time for gold, but I came up short.”

This was the first time Spinnato had competed in the games. He lost all of his matches. “I haven’t been fighting for that long,” said Spinnato. “I was talented enough to qualify for the games, but I’m going head to head with guys who have much more experience.”

Spinnato faced off against Anthony Gugino, of Western; Ali Baker, of New York City; Joel Burgess, of Central; and twice, Michael Doria, of Long Island.

Saunders went 4-1 on the day with victories over Hector Moscoso, of Hudson Valley; Alexander Turner, of Central; Scott Yockel, of Western; and Miguel Joseph, of New York City. His only loss came at the hands of eventual gold medalist Joseph Tamburello, of Long Island.

Rules of the game

The objective of a judo match is to score an ippon, which is a full point. “Think of it as equivalent to a pin in wrestling or a knockout in boxing,” said Saunders. Once an ippon is scored, the match is completely over. “Some matches don’t even make it past 15 seconds,” he said.

There are three ways to obtain an ippon: Throwing an opponent hard on his back, pinning him on his back for 25 seconds, or making the opponent submit. “The matches are five minutes,” said Spinnato. “If a point isn’t scored in that time period, the match goes to a golden score.”

The “golden score” is a judo term for sudden death. The first fighter to score an ippon wins. “There are other ways to score,” said Saunders. “Waza-aris are half-points and yukos and kokas are lesser values. This is where it gets confusing, so don’t worry about it.”

Players are expected to fight according to the rules. Usually, this is what happens. “I’ve never seen anyone go out of control on the mat. Judo is very professional,” said Spinnato. “There’s no time for stalling; you’re expected to continuously attack.”

Judokas (competitors in judo) can be penalized for purposely stepping out of bounds, stalling their attack, over defending, heckling their opponent, or for being too vicious. “There are severe penalties in judo. Fighters are usually on their best behavior,” said Saunders.

Judo evolved from another art form. It came from the historic Japanese practice of jujitsu. “Jujitsu has more of a focus on strength. Judo relies more on the energy you can obtain from your opponent,” said Spinnato.

Gentle way?

Strength isn’t the main ingredient of judo. That’s why some people refer to it as “The Gentle Way.” Self-defense is ideal. “One of the first things you learn in training is how to fall properly,” said Saunders. “Strength is second nature in this sport. I could go face someone twice my size if I wanted to, but I’d rather not.”

Even though judo is considered a self-defense sport, getting injured is a reality. “I get busted up all the time. This isn’t easy. I broke my clavical bone in 2005, after getting thrown on my shoulder,” said Saunders. “It took me a while to recover from that.”

“I have to be at every match of his,” said Nikki Rivera, Saunders’s fiancée. “He’s had some bad injures, so I would be worried if I wasn’t there watching.”

Spinnato hasn’t suffered severe injuries from judo. “I’ve gotten worse injuries from competing in track,” he said. “Although, I do get lots of bruises.”

   Spinnato and Saunders both train at Judo of Japan in Troy. They give each other healthy pointers and tips whenever possible. “We really helped each other out at the games,” said Saunders. “It was his first time, so I let him know what the atmosphere would be like.”

Saunders is a registered first-degree black belt, who works as a full-time dietitian at Ellis Hospital. “Don’t be fooled. There are 10 degrees of black belt--Eight, nine, and 10 are very rare,” he said. Saunders might try for the Olympics some day, he said.

 “You have to devote your whole life to Judo if you want to try for the Olympics,” he said. “I have an actual job though, so it might be a little challenging.”

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