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Shepherd Earns Rare Distinction in Judo

November 15, 2016

Eiko Saito Shepherd photo  
Eiko Saito Shepherd, left, recently was honored at the
Hachidan Celebration in Florissant for earning the rank of
eighth-degree black belt in judo and more than 30 years of
teaching the sport. 

Eiko Saito Shepherd is one of only three women in the world to earn the rank of eighth-degree black belt in judo.

But Shepherd does not consider that the most significant accomplishment in her career.

“My most noteworthy achievement is helping my students in the same way that others have helped me to make my life better through judo,” said Shepherd, an adjunct physical education instructor at Florissant Valley who has taught judo there since 2007.

To earn the rank of eighth degree takes a lifetime of practice and devotion to judo, Shepherd said, noting that very few achieve this level. To gain strength, Shepherd did weight training. She also entered the 1995 World Bench Press competition and won a world title.

“The judo world is still dominated by men. Males get promotions easier than females,” Shepherd said. “However, the way I feel is that females when we set our mind to it, can perform as well as men.”

Shepherd grew up in Tokyo, and started judo because it was her family’s sport. Her father practiced judo and ju jitsu. Her older brother, Chu, was an Asian Games champion. Judo is a form of physical, mental and spiritual development.

“The first time I went to see my brother compete in a tournament, I was fascinated by the way he moved,” Shepherd said. “I wanted to be like him. So when I was 11 years old I began practicing at my local judo (dojo) club. I practiced judo because I wanted to learn how a little strength can conquer a big strength. With hard training from my brother and judo teachers, I became a strong competitor.”

As a teen, Shepherd’s coaches encouraged her to enter the competition against the males at the Kodokan, the world headquarters of judo. No officials objected, she said, because they thought she would lose in no time. However, Shepherd did very well, making history in Japan as the first woman to compete against men.

“My interest in judo has been sustained because there is no end to what one can learn about techniques, psychology and philosophy,” Shepherd said. “Judo builds good character, both physically and mentally.”

Shepherd has devoted 58 years of her life to the sport, including more than 30 years as an instructor. She recently was honored at the Hachidan Celebration in Florissant for her 8th Dan promotion.

“My students came from all over the country to celebrate with me,” Shepherd said. “They are now in their 30s and 40s, and are quick to say how important judo remains in their lives.  I have coached many of them at competitions across the United States, in Japan, Canada and Europe. So over the years I have built a bond between the students and myself. So we are a judo family.”

Shepherd, who lives in Washington Park, Ill., with her husband, Terry. They have two children and three grandchildren.

Now 69, Shepherd still has the passion to spread a love for judo. Her oldest students are retirees.

“Some people may think that judo is only for competition in tournaments, and that is not true,” Shepherd said. “Dr. (Jigoro) Kano, the founder of judo, intended for it to be a method of physical and mental conditioning for boys and girls, men and women of all ages.

“Everyone has a different reason to come to judo,” she added. “Some may come for competition, exercise, fun, recreation, friendship, confidence and character building. Through judo practice, my students make themselves better people.”