American Bushido: One on One with Willy Cahill

Willy Cahill is an International Judo legend. Mr. Cahill has coached nearly 1000 National and International medal winners. His elite athletes have represented the United States at numerous international events.Willy Cahill is an International Judo legend. Mr. Cahill has coached nearly 1000 National and International medal winners. His elite athletes have represented the United States at numerous international events. Inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Judo Instructor of the Year, Willy Cahill has also served as coach to Stanford University, the U.S. Team for the Pan American Games, the World Championships, and the Olympics. Some of his well-known students include Mike Swain, Devi Nelson, Bret Barron, Monica Emmerson, Mike Kessler, Mike Pechina and movie actress Hillary Wolf among countless others. He has also coached blind and disabled Judokas to incredible skill levels.

I actually grew up not far from his academy, but I never trained there (though I really wish I had the sense to do it in my youth). Not too long ago, a friend of mine who trained there, (former Mr. USA Jim Wilson) suggested my son take up the art. My son loved it and I learned a lot about the art of judo and heart of those who choose to train in it.

Sitting with Willy Cahill is amazing. He is so personable it is easy to forget he stands before you as living judo history. His positive character is reflected in the attitude of his instructors, and younger students alike.

In this inspiring and eye opening interview, Willy Cahill talks about what makes judo a great beginning martial art for kids. Then we talk about what makes a champion, and how the American judo and greater martial arts community can take their game to the next level.

AB: Why do you think judo is such a great beginning art for children?

WC: One of the great things about judo is that it teaches balance and coordination. It teaches kids how to defend, and how to be offensive in taking care of themselves. You`d be surprised, the kids that take judo, are not the violent ones. They learn how to calm their emotions down. I`ve been involved in it for 56 years, so, I really like it (smiles).

AB: One of the things I notice now in America is that there are many people freaked out about violence in the youth. But when you propose that people teach the kids martial arts, parents get even more freaked out. Why do you think it is that after all this time, so many parents have not realized all of the all of the good things martial arts transfers to the child?

WC: I think we see the movies. The movies glorify it. The stuff they show in the movies takes years and years of practice. It`s not something you can just do overnight. Even Bruce Lee- it took him a long time to be the best. It`s the same as anything else.

The main thing about martial arts, is it teaches character. How not to fight, how to be aware, and how to help other people.

AB: It seems like with the explosion of judo people had forgotten how explosive, graceful and effective judo was. Now it seems like people are coming back. The greatest hole I see in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the takedowns. They are not as crisp as the wrestler and they are not as fluid as the judoka. I`m starting to notice a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu guys coming to learn judo now. Do you see judo growing within that crowd?

WC: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is independent. At the same time, they (the Gracie family) learned from a Judo master from Japan. They are excellent at what they do with their grappling techniques. But I think it`s more than just one part to teaching self defense. I don`t think a person is going to lay down on the ground and say “Ok, lets start fighting”. You are always going to start from a standing position. How you get that person down, will show what situation you are going to be in. So, I think it`s important that people learn both. Also, martial arts, is still a sport. We should continue to show it in that manner. It`s not something violent. It`s not something to show how to defeat another person through violent tactics. It has to be something where at the end both people can shake hands and say “Hey, nice going”.

AB: You have coached the Olympic Games, and you know champions. What are some of the things that you see in an individual that make your head say “Hey, this guy might have what it takes”?

WC: I was fortunate enough to be one of the international coaches for a gentleman by the name of Mike Swain. I was training him here at my club and he was also training at San Jose State. We became good friends during that time. The thing about Mike is that when he gets on the mat he is standing up and fighting continuously- physically, mentally and emotionally. It`s going through his mind while he competes. And when the class is over and everybody is gone, he`s still on the mat. He`s working out by himself, training and running.

With a champion at that level, it`s physical, mental and emotional stability- that the person has. But he has to go beyond his technical judo. He has to go out and seek the best player just to train. He has to go all over the country, and overseas. He trained a lot in Japan. He also trained in Europe.

We had a seven week tour in 1983. He won a gold medal in six out of the seven tournaments. He trained so hard that the Americans could not help him to become better. He had to so a lot of it on his own.

AB: When you look at American judo today, and where it is at- what would you like to see it achieve? What would you like to see happening within the judo community to improve it?

WC: Things are going well up at the Olympic training center. But, not well enough. We in America we have an easy life. We don`t have the desire and the fighting spirit and goals that are set by the Cubans or the Russians or some of these other countries that don`t have what we have. We can always go out and get a hamburger. There`s food all over the place. When we were in Cuba it was tough. In Cuba those guys don`t have the same kind of food that we have. They have the desire, they have the coaches to train them, and they set different goals than we have.

Our life is so easy that we don`t push ourselves. It`s an individual that becomes a champion, not the organization. So it takes a little bit more skill by one person, and his desire to continue to be the best.

What we need to do is have all our best coaches and all our best athletes in the sport working together. There`s so much ego in America that we don`t try to go out and help the other person. WE have to look forward to helping that person as an American, not whether he is from my club, or your club. We all have to work together.

AB: It seems as though every martial arts style that came to America, had a philosophy. But over the years they have been pushed to the back How do you think that has helped, or hurt martial arts as a whole, and judo specifically?

WC: Thinking back on that…Our best team, and I`m not talking about the most medals- but the most organized group of guys…They spent time in Japan training on their own. To make money to live they taught English to the Japanese people. That was the first U.S. Judo team that went to the Olympics in 1964. It was a unique team.

Our lightweight was named Jimmy Brinkman (SP?) a Jewish kid. The weight above him was Paul Moyama (SP?), The next guy was Ben Campbell was an American Indian. The heavyweight we had was George Harris, he was an African American. That was a great team because it put all these nationalities together.

That team worked together and they all lived in Japan on their own. They paid their way to Japan and stayed there and trained. They became the best in their weight class and represented the United States. Their philosophy was to train, work together and be the best that they could be. But they still had the desire to see how they could help the American athletes.

Today all of these gentlemen are successful. Ben Campbell was captain of the Olympic team in `64, he`s now a U.S. Senator. Paul Myoyama is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and is a Lt. Colonel. Jim Brinkman is high up in Washington D.C. Harris, is high up in the Military.

Not only are they good athletes and great judo players- but great Americans.

AB: Do you think that American martial arts NEEDS the Eastern philosophy? I think a lot of it for many Americans just becomes hippie stuff that they can`t relate to. Maybe because it`s foreign they don`t want to relate to. But then, in another direction, how much of the philosophy just comes from training, and facing your fear and just doing it?

WC: I was fortunate to go to Japan quite a few times and train. I trained there for my first time in 1963. The philosophy was to be the best. The thing about the Japanese and Eastern philosophy, it`s tough for the Americans to become that person. We as Americans, we need to develop our own. We need to realize what WE are made of and our lifestyle is. We need to depend on ourselves. We`re not doing it enough.

A lot of our athletes train the Japanese way. Some train the way the Europeans train. Some train the way they do in England. They`re real fast and good at groundwork. I think the United States has never developed a system, or a style where we can say “this is us”. The women proved it in soccer. The men proved in ice hockey. It took the Americans to develop that level of international style. So we need to do that in our own system of martial arts also.

AB: What will it take for us to jump over that hurdle?

WC: It`s gonna take us all to start working together. There is a problem in every phase of the American way. Not only in our sports system, but even in the government. We`re not working together as one unit. We like to get noticed, that WE`RE the one that did this and WE`RE the one winning. That`s not the way it` supposed to be. We have to work together to help each other and we have to have our own identity.

AB: That`s really beautiful. Any last words?

WC: I really appreciate you working to get the martial arts noticed to the everyday people. I think that it`s people like you, that really make the martial arts better. Thank you.

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Adisa Banjoko