Judo Athletes That Started Late


Not all successful Judoka started at a young age, here are the best Judo athletes that started at a late age.

Allen Coage, representing the United States of America

  • Olympic Bronze Medalist at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games
  • Two time Pan-American Champion

Allen began training Judo at the age of 22 in the heavyweight division, which would be considered a relatively late age to start for a sport like Judo. Allen placed first at an Invitational tournament in Chicago just after training seven months as a white belt. It took Allen just two and a half years to achieve his Shodan (1st Dan Black belt) before reaching Sandan (3rd Dan Black belt) five years later. His judo style was classical, with Allen’s favored throws being Tai Otoshi and Ouchi Gari. In addition to Judo, Allen practiced Akido under Kastuo Watanabe. He also achieved Shodan in Akido.

Allen became Pan-American Champion twice- the first time was in 1967 in Winnipeg, the second time was in 1975 in Mexico City.

Allen relocated to Japan for two years in 1970, studying Judo at Nihon University. In 1972, Allen experienced a serious knee injury during his Olympic Trials bout with Jimmy Wooley. Due to his injury, Allen couldn’t compete at the 1972 Olympic Games. Upon recovering, Allen began preparing for the 1976 Olympic Games, which he eventually competed at and won a Bronze medal. 

Initially, Allen was excluded from the Olympic Team squad until the US Judo Association filed a lawsuit against the US Olympic Committee. 

He became the first African American to win a medal in a solo sport other than Track and Field or Boxing. 

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David Starbrook, representing Great Britain

  • Silver and Bronze Medalist at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games and at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games consecutively
  • Two time Bronze medalist at the World Championships
  • One time silver and two time bronze medalist at the European Championships

David Starbrook began his Judo career at the age of 19. Despite the late start in Judo, David moved through the ranks in the middleweight division quite quickly and became British Champion. By 1971 David won his first Bronze medal at the World Championships.

At the time, UK sport and athlete funding wasn’t yet implemented. Which meant- athletes were self-funded. David trained both before and after work, in his work uniform. He had to juggle full-time employment as a plumber. His day would start off with a run around the park in his hobnailed boots, followed by a weight training session. His work day ended at 5 PM and he would go off to another training session straight after- including an hour of Ne-Waza and an hour of Tachi-Waza.

David Starbrook went on to win Silver at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and Bronze at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

David had to win seven gruelling contests just to make it to the finals at the Munich Olympics. He fought for 6 minutes in Quarter Finals, 8 minutes in Semi Finals, and 10 minutes in the Finals.

Today, David lives in France and continues to practice and coach Judo. He has a son, who’s also a Judoka- Leon. David achieved his 9th Dan in November 2007 at the Judo World Cup in Birmingham. It was awarded to him by the chairman of the British Judo Association, Densign White.

David Starbrook
David Starbrook (Centre)

Rhadi Ferguson, representing the United States of America

  • Competed at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympic Games
  • Bronze medalist at the Pan-American Championships

Rhadi Ferguson trained Judo for a year, between the ages of 7 and 12. He wouldn’t begin training again till after he finished college, aged 22.

Rhadi Ferguson began training Judo in Miami, but after he moved with his family to Maryland, he stopped. After his long lay-off he returned to the tatami at age 22, and made the 2004 Olympic Team just a mere 7 years later.

By the age of 29, Rhadi competed at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympic Games in the half-weight division. Previously, he was an alternate for the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games. 

Rhadi Ferguson never had to cut weight. He described himself as small for his weight class in terms of weight, but he was happy about it. He didn’t want to fight against the scale, as it’s a battle the scale wins in the end according to him. 

He kept himself light so he could enjoy Judo and not have to hate cutting weight and having an aversive stimulus towards competition.

Rhadi Ferguson’s secret to longevity in the sport is to enjoy the time you have when you’re healthy, and to train smart, not hard. Judo is a contact sport, so injury is inevitable, you have to take it as it comes and understand that one day your number will be called.

Roy Meyer, representing the Netherlands

  • 7th at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games
  • Two time Bronze medalist at the World Championships and World Masters
  • Multiple Gold, Silver and Bronze medalist at various Grand Slams and Grand Prixs

Roy Meyer began Judo at a fairly young age, but he left the sport soon after. He ended up returning to the tatami at age 17. He returned to Judo after experiencing a turning point in his life, in which he immersed himself in religion, people, esotericism and psychology. 

At the time, Roy was forced to leave Judo as he grew up in a troubled home and at age 10 was forced to live in boarding school. After thongs began escalating at home and in his environment, that’s when Roy had to move. Unfortunately at the time there was no budget for him to continue doing Judo.

Roy decided to create something of and for his own, by realizing at the age of 17 that he shouldn’t continue living as a victim or with the feeling of not belonging.

Judo allowed Roy to form some of his better memories and gave him an opportunity to pave a road to success with a talent he found to still have in him. 

After leaving boarding school, Roy picked up Judo full-time and a year and a half later he became Continental Junior champion and Bronze medalist at the Junior World Championships.

Since then, Roy represented the Netherlands at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and has picked up numerous medals from Continental Championships, Continental Opens, Grand Prixs, Grand Slams and World Championships.

roy meyer wins
(courtesy Roy Meyer/Facebook)

Assmaa Niang, representing Morocco 

  • Competed at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games and 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games
  • 5th place at the 2017 World Championships
  • 5 time African Champion, 1 time Silver medallist and 2 time Bronze medallist
  • Multiple Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medalist at various Grand Slams and Grand Prixs

Assmaa has always been good at sport, and after practicing several, she finally began Judo at age 20. She had a career in Paris at the time- she had to give it up to wear the colors of Morocco, her homeland. She had a military career and 10 years with the Paris Fire Brigade before solely focusing on Judo.

In 2017, Assmaa fought in the Bronze medal final at the Senior World Championships- she ended up placing 5th. She went on to qualify and compete at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio and the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Assmaa competed at her 2nd Olympic Games, aged 38. When you ask how old she is, she won’t say 38. She’ll say “20 years old, plus 18 years of experience” (she began the sport at age 20). That is her secret to longevity in the sport, starting at a later age and taking each day as it comes.

Anastasia-Alexandra Nenova, representing South Africa

  • Bronze medalist at the African Championships

I share a similar story with Rhadi Ferguson and Roy Meyer- I did Judo for about 3 years, between the ages of 7 and 10. I came back in 2016, after a 7 year lay-off. I started from scratch, I had to learn how to breakfall. I started competing by 2017, and I lost every single tournament I participated at. Then in 2018, I started to win. By 2019 I was ranked number 1 in South Africa in both the Senior -63kg and -70kg weight categories.

By 2020, I won our national trials and became part of the national team squad. By March, we were in full lock-down (thanks Covid)- which meant, no training. With a lack of gym equipment or any person to train with at home- I kept training on a daily basis, mainly with my own body weight. By September, we began training again- with just two months left to prepare for the Continental Championships. I then competed at my first Senior African Championships in December 2020 and won Bronze. Winning Bronze was a very special achievement to me- not only because I made the podium, but because it meant I qualified for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

2021 has been by far my best and worst year. I began competing internationally, but experienced lots of losses along the way as well. Not to mention, lots of injuries- and I ended up getting Covid too. But that didn’t stop my determination. I ended the year off with a Silver medal at the Yaoundé African Open.

I’m hoping to make 2022 my best year yet, as I will begin the Olympic cycle for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympic Games. The main obstacle that I, and other athletes (mainly athletes from Africa and even Pan-America) are facing is being self-funded, unfortunately there’s a lack of sport and athlete funding in South Africa for Judo. I’m searching for potential individuals and businesses to collaborate with in my journey to the Olympic Games and beyond.

Anastasia Alexandra Nenova
Anastasia-Alexandra Nenova (centre)

I’m pictured in the centre 

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