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Ready to Throw Down

Balancing lightning moves, tenacity and inner calm, Captain Amber Jones is a force to watch in judo as she pursues a spot in the 2020 Olympics.
Practicing the art of judo takes patience, discipline and tenacity. CPT Amber Jones of the Missouri National Guard has all three, and she’s continually seeking the perfect throw to take down her opponents.
Practicing the art of judo takes patience, discipline and tenacity. CPT Amber Jones of the Missouri National Guard has all three, and she’s continually seeking the perfect throw to take down her opponents.

When Missouri Captain Amber Jones stepped on the judo mat vying for a bronze medal at the 2013 U.S. nationals, her world went quiet.

She had been trying for years to medal at the event. At 30, she was significantly older than other competitors at this stage. Her opponent in her weight division (under 57 kilograms/125.7 pounds), Amelia Fulgentes, 19, was talented but beatable. But when the bout began, any thoughts entering this match, any memory of what led Jones to this moment, any crowd noise, simply vanished.

“Nothing else exists except what’s on the judo mat,” says Jones, the company commander for the 1141st Engineer Company (Sapper). “I don’t actually hear [my coaches] when they’re yelling at me.” For her, there are no spectators, nobody outside of that red square. Other than the referee, “there’s just me and that other person.”

Early in the match, Fulgentes tried using her height advantage against Jones, who, at 5-foot-4, is usually much shorter than her opponents. Fulgentes reached over Jones’ head, trying to grab her by the shoulders to pull her down. But Jones, accustomed to this tactic, quickly countered it.

When Fulgentes tried the move again, Jones was ready. Combining two of her best moves, she threw Fulgentes over her back (ura nage) and over her hip (yoko guruma). Like a battlefield tactic, it’s a sequence that takes months to prepare, and then it’s over in a blink. Fulgentes landed on her back—the very definition of a winning move in judo.

It was the biggest win of Jones’ career. But she didn’t act like it. Staying true to the sport’s tradition, she calmly walked to the center of the mat and bowed toward Fulgentes. Judoka, the Japanese term for a judo competitor, always respects an opponent.

Only then did the world turn back on. Her thought: I can’t believe I finally made it. 

With perseverance, uncommon tenacity and her ability to flip that switch, not to mention opponents, Jones has risen from regional standout to formidable competitor on the national and international scene. Although a torn MCL has hampered her this year, the member of the Armed Forces Judo Team plans to take a shot at making the 2020 Olympic team. (Her 2016 Olympic dreams were postponed because of the injury.)

Getting to this level, however, would never have happened if she hadn’t decided after the Fulgentes match to take one of the biggest risks of her life.

CROSSROADS

Jones had been passionate about judo for years, but the bronze medal represented her first taste of anything more than regional success. She knew she would not improve without devoting more time to it. So, she quit a job as a structural engineer at FedEx Express in Memphis, TN, and moved to her home state of Missouri to work at Fort Leonard Wood and train with coaches she had worked with in St. Louis for years.

Considering her age and the steady paycheck, “most people thought I was absolutely insane,” Jones says.

But the decision was easy for Jones. “I always lived my life to where, if I died tomorrow, I wouldn’t look back and be like, ‘Wow, I just wasted my life,’ ” she says. “The worst thing in the world that could happen is when you’re on your death bed [and] you have a million ‘what if’ questions.”

So, she set aside a lucrative career for the sport she loves. “I can always go back to my career as an engineer. What I can’t go back to is my sport,” Jones, now 33, says. “There’s going to come a time where I’m physically unable to do judo, but I’m going to do it until that time comes.”

Jones had already devoted considerable resources to judo, having spent her own money to run her own judo club in Rolla, MO, since 2008, volunteering as a coach. She laughs. “You know how to make $1 million in judo?” she asks. “Start with $2 million and open a judo club.”

The sport makes her friends think she’s crazy, because it causes her pain and costs her money.

But she loves every minute of it.

GRINS AND GRIT

Unlike other martial arts, judo aims to help an individual’s entire being—physical, mental and spiritual. Judo is a Japanese word that means “gentle way,” and many moves involve yielding to an attack initially in order to maximize leverage for a counterstrike. 

The sport was created in the late 1800s by Dr. Jigoro Kano, who describes judo like this: “By training you in attacks and defenses, it refines your body and your soul and helps you make the spiritual essence of judo a part of your very being. In this way you are able to strive toward self-perfection and contribute something of value back to society.”

But it’s not always that serious. When asked to name the most important attribute a judoka needs to succeed, Jones answers, “a sense of humor.” And she’s serious about that.

“When you’re on the judo mat, and somebody’s grabbing a hold of you and jerking you around, smashing your face down on the mat, you can’t lose your mental capacity to think,” she says, “especially in practice. When it’s one of your friends doing that, you have to have a good sense of humor about it.”

The second most important trait is toughness, Jones says, both mental and physical. Her friends in the judo world admire her toughness most, because the sport takes a severe toll on the body. In addition to the MCL tear, which cost her several months of competition this year, Jones has broken or dislocated all of her fingers and toes, dislocated her shoulder, fractured her femur, suffered three concussions, sprained her ankles and injured her back.

The final attribute a judoka needs, Jones says, is discipline. “A drill sergeant is like a sensei,” says Derrick Wellman, Jones’ judo coach in St. Louis and an Army Veteran. “[Jones] does whatever the drill sergeant or the officer or sensei asks. And she’s ready to do more. She’s always ready to step up and do more. That’s just her, her whole life, anything she does.”

Jones has been committed to the sport ever since encountering it by accident 15 years ago. As a freshman in 2000 at the University of Kansas (she went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in cognitive science), Jones worked at the school’s recreation center. One evening, she walked around the facility doing her rounds, counting how many students there were, making sure nobody was hanging from the basketball hoops and so forth. Her tour took her past the martial arts room.

When she looked in, she saw a room full of judoka wearing judogi (special uniforms). Curious, she stopped to watch as the men and women threw one another around the tatami (mat). It appeared to Jones as the perfect sport, because it requires strength, aggression, smarts and toughness—abilities she had already honed in karate, softball and other sports as a kid. But it was judo that stuck with her. “I was hooked from first sight,” she says.

She joined the judo club the next day. “Anybody can throw a baseball [or] a football. Anybody can throw a punch,” Jones says, “but try throwing a person who doesn’t want to be thrown. It’s like a combative chess game. You have to get them to move just right, to angle them just right, and then—when that throw clicks—it’s just absolutely perfect and it takes no effort whatsoever. But you can spend your entire life to try to get one throw to work just right.” 

The better she gets, the closer she gets to that perfect throw, and the more she wants it.

Jones is no stranger to training, structure and discipline. She served in the Marines from 2004 to 2008 as a supply officer, deploying in 2007 to Iraq to support 17 squadrons in logistics and contracting. Following her deployment, she earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Missouri University of Science and Technology in 2011. Two years later, she joined the Missouri National Guard. On top of her intensive judo training schedule, she’s currently in the master’s program for engineering and industrial management at Missouri S&T.

Even while juggling her Guard duties with school and her recent injury, Jones is always thinking about her next competition.

As fall approached, she hoped her MCL would be sufficiently healed to allow her to fight in the World Military Games in South Korea, but her surgeon would not release her to compete at that time. And, beyond that, she was aiming to fight her way onto the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, but for now, she has her sights set on the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. Only the top 13 in the world in each weight class qualify for the Olympics automatically. (Jones wants to compete in the under 52 kg class.) She won’t qualify under that method. But the Olympics also invites the two best per continental region who aren’t in the top 13. That’s a long shot but not impossible.

In the interim, Jones is training for nationals in April, several national/regional competitions at the beginning of the year and back to international competitions in July. She also plans to compete in four international tournaments—in Switzerland, Scotland, Sweden and El Salvador. “ But I have to play it smart and heal fully in preparation for the next 4 years,” she says.

THE BUDDY SYSTEM

Judoka must look out for themselves—and each other. One reason Jones and other participants love judo is it combines the one-on-one elements of individual sports with the philosophies of team sports. Also, the beauty of judo is that sometimes lesser fighters win.

A core principle of judo is “mutual welfare and benefit,” which means that all of the participants get better together. Much like Soldiers in the military, judoka are accountable both to themselves and to their teammates. The result of holding each other accountable is deep—if also a tad unusual—friendships.

“Normal people probably don’t do judo,” Jones says. “We’ll spend two or three hours just throwing each other, slamming each other, beating the tar out of each other. But then we’ll go out to eat.” 

Those friendships form the very foundation of the sport. “You can do tae kwon do [or] karate by yourself. You can do all these other martial arts by yourself. But you can’t do judo by yourself,” Jones says. “You have to have respect and the mutual benefit of your training partner. You help them grow as they help you grow.”

Jones practices often with Captain Anna Feygina, a Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps officer of the 35th Infantry Division, Missouri National Guard. Jones is left-handed, and Feygina is right-handed—and taller than Jones. Because of their physical differences, the two have contrasting fighting styles, which helps them both learn different moves—how to make them and how to defend against them. The sport isn’t exactly overflowing with women, so it’s especially important for the two captains to look out for each other.

“We fight, but it’s practice, so we don’t try to hurt each other. If we do, we won’t have a partner to work with,” Feygina says.

Just as important for Jones has been her willingness to throw herself against the toughest competitors she can find. “With judo, you really have to go and immerse yourself and get your butt whipped to get better,” says Army Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ring, Jones’ coach on the Armed Forces Judo Team. “That takes a lot of heart and a lot of courage to do that. It’s easy to practice when you can throw other people around. But if you really want to be better, you have to go to a place where you’re not the best athlete in the room. [Jones] does that.”


JUDO IN FIVE MOVES

There are so many moves and throws in judo that nobody has mastered them all. These are a few of Missouri Army National Guard Captain Amber Jones’ favorites. 

Ippon Seonage (one arm shoulder throw). Jones grabs her opponent under the arm while simultaneously turning around. As Jones bends at the waist, she throws the opponent over her shoulder and onto her back.

Seoi Otoshi (shoulder drop). Jones grabs her opponent under the arm while simultaneously turning around. As Jones bends at the knees, she throws the opponent over her shoulder and onto her back.

Osoto Gari (large outer reap). Jones puts her right foot behind her opponent’s right leg. Holding her opponent by the shoulders, she pushes the back of her opponent’s leg against her own leg, tripping her, so she lands on her back.

Ura Nage (rear throw). When an opponent reaches for Jones’ upper body, she seizes her opponent by the waist, lifts her and throws her backward over her shoulder; they both wind up on the mat.

Yoko Guruma (side wheel). When an opponent reaches for Jones’ upper body, she simultaneously ducks and grabs the opponent’s arm. Jones then spins sideways, throwing herself and the opponent to the mat.


THE TRAIN-UP

A typical week of training for Jones includes:

MONDAY, WEDNESDAY, FRIDAY

Morning

High-intensity workout: 45 minutes

• Daily workouts vary but often include Crossfit moves (push-ups, kettlebell swings, burpees, sit-ups, sled pushes and tire flips)

Evening

Judo training: 90–120 minutes

• Warm-ups: light jogging and practice landing

• Stretches

• Grip fighting, 3–4 rounds x 3 minutes

• Movement speed drills: go through the motions of a drill as fast as you can without actually doing the throw 

• Core conditioning: a variety of unique exercises, including walking across the room on hands with a partner’s help, with push-ups after each step; jump up, wrap legs around partner’s waist and do 20–30 sit-ups; one person crawls on hands and knees, while the other person grabs them by the lapels and does a handstand—the crawling person has to make it across the room

• Skills training: focus on strategy and technique

Newaza Randori: ground fight

Techiwaza Randori: standing fight (Friday nights only): jiujitsu or judo fight nights (90 minutes of nothing but fighting, normally in 3-minute rounds

 

TUESDAY, THURSDAY

Morning

Three–four mile run, or 10–15 mile bike ride

Afternoon

Light core and recovery workouts: 30–40 minutes

• Warmup (bike for five minutes)

• Plank front, back, left and right 3 x 1 minute each

• 100 sit-ups on decline bench

• 100 leg raises

• 3 x 15 landmines (move a barbell side to side over your head)

• Roller, 10–15 minutes  

• Cool down: bike for five minutes

Evening

Jiujitsu grappling: 60–90 minutes 

• A knee injury is keeping Jones from doing a power workout, which would usually be done here.

• Ground techniques: similar to judo ground techniques, which aren’t practiced much; it’s one of her strengths.

 

SATURDAY

Morning

Two-hour judo workout similar to the weeknight training, only with more focus on the technique

 

SUNDAY (recovery day)

Morning

Long relaxing swim, bike or jog


FUEL FOR THE FIGHT

A month and a half before a major tournament, Jones focuses on her diet to make sure she gets her weight to under 52 kilograms (114.6 pounds). She previously fought at 57 kg but has dropped to 52 since entering the international judo scene, she says.

Here’s how she does it:

First thing in the morning: 8 oz. glass of cold water with lemon

Breakfast (after her first workout): Two eggs, sometimes with two pieces of turkey bacon, fresh-juiced fruit, double protein oatmeal, English muffin, hot green tea

Snack: Small protein shake or Greek yogurt (with an occasional small handful of nuts)

Lunch: 6 oz. chicken or lean meat, small spinach salad

Snack: Lean protein shake, handful of nuts or vegetables (carrots or celery)

Dinner: 6 oz. fish or chicken, small salad or vegetable (broccoli, sweet potato or zucchini)

Snack (after evening workout): Either a recovery shake or 8 oz. water, depending on the severity of the workout.