The Doctor Ippon Protocol
This "interview" is actually not an interview at all, but a story. It's actually a draft of a chapter from an upcoming book I'm working on. In the chapter, I talk about John Kuchinski, who's been a long-time judo student of mine.
John's been through a lot, and I like to think I've been present for much of it and at least a little bit helpful. The story is incredible, and it continues to this day. I'll get out of the way and let it play out for you here.
So You've Got a Skinned Knee?
When people tell me about the trivial things that keep them from coming to the dojo, I reflect on one of my long-time students named John Kuchinski. John is one-hundred percent blind due to brain surgery he had when he was about twelve years old. He started judo in college and, eighteen years later, he’s still training with me at the Japanese Martial Arts Center. He’s achieved third-degree black belt in judo, and he’s shockingly good at both the standing and groundwork aspects.
John’s very outgoing. He talks a lot of trash, tells a lot of stories, and is almost always a very positive influence in our judo program. His seoi nage (back-carry throw) is so wicked we call him “Doctor Ippon.” That’s a neat play on words, because “ippon” can mean both “one-arm” – as in “one-arm shoulder throw” – and “one point” – as in, you just won your judo match! But that’s not the end of his story, not by a long shot.
About nine years ago, John started having circulation problems in his left foot. Judo got difficult because his foot would turn white and get very painful. Still, John showed up and trained. We would hold him by his shoulders and spin him around to get blood into his foot, then he’d go back to judo. Eventually, however, the circulation problem got so bad that John could barely train. The health of his leg was threatened. His doctors advised him to get an arterial bypass. In this gruesome process, they would make a huge slice in his other leg, strip out a few feet of vein (or artery, I can never remember the difference), and implant in it the other leg.
While he was recovering, John came to the dojo to “watch” class and soak up the atmosphere. Keep in mind, John can’t see a thing, but he was there on the sidelines listening, encouraging his judo buddies, asking questions, and continuing his total commitment to judo. When he got clearance from his doctors, he returned to training.
The first procedure failed. For some reason, the transplant didn’t work. His doctors advised him that he would either have to get another transplant or lose his foot. So he went through several versions of the procedure. During his recovery, he was at the dojo watching. As soon as he was allowed to, he joined us on the mats.
Guess what? The follow up procedure failed. As did the third, and so on. John has the coolest scars ever – long train tracks of scar tissue that run up both his legs and arms. But after investigating all kinds of alternative therapies, the doctors concluded that there was nothing more they could do. They kept John going with blood thinners and other medications that were supposed to help with blood flow, but eventually his foot simply started to die. John would come to judo class, train for a few minutes, then have to retire to the sidelines to deal with the extreme pain of a foot that was basically dying while still attached to his leg. He could barely sleep at night because of the pain. Finally, the doctors told him that if he didn’t have his foot amputated, he would likely lose his entire leg.
The Doctor Ippon Protocol
They removed his foot and about half his shin. Because of the great balance and agility he gained in judo practice, he was the rock star of the rehab unit. First he learned to walk on his prosthetic. In a few months, he was walking without crutches.
Guess where John was almost every Wednesday and Friday evening during his recovery? You got it. He was at the Japanese Martial Arts Center, watching judo class, listening, soaking it up, talking trash, and keeping his training partners entertained. He started with a few private lessons, and within a few weeks he started attending grappling classes. That alone is an extraordinary achievement, but John was executing high level groundwork and even one-legged standing judo after a few months.
In September 2015, John joined our Tough Mudder team and made it through the entire course (with a lot of help from the JMAC team, but you try getting through over ten miles of terrain and 20 obstacles while blind and with a prosthetic leg!). Actually, they wouldn’t let him go through the final electrical shock obstacle because he has metal sutures in his skull related to his brain surgery. Could YOU do that?
What’s the secret to his success? Clearly, it’s his deep commitment to judo, made real by his determination to show up no matter what.
Was it always easy? Of course not. John and I have had many talks, during which I’ve sometimes had to remind him to focus on the unlimited opportunities he still has, rather than what he’s lost. There have been times when he’s felt he had to drag himself to the dojo. It’s probably a lot harder for him than it is for you and me. John’s not only blind, but he has to walk on a prosthetic leg. He has to arrange for a cab and take a whole host of steps that you and I take for granted.
The Story is Never Over
The story is far from over. As I write this in late 2018, John's recovering from a fourth amputation. The first was to remove his left foot. The second was to remove his right foot below the knee. The third was above the left knee. The most recent was above his right knee. We used to call John "the blind, one-legged judoman." Now we'll have to call him "the blind judoman with no legs."
But despite obstacles that would either kill most people or certainly give them an excuse to quit, John is once again back in the dojo. He's learning how to get around with no legs, figuring out how to grapple in unique new ways and building a set of techniques that don't rely on leverage from his legs. Most of all, he's not letting obstacles get in the way of his life's mission. John's a judoman, and that means he shows up at the dojo and puts in the work.
That’s just one example showing that almost anybody who’s truly made the commitment to their martial art should be able to show up despite all the minor obstacles we encounter. I daresay the Doctor Ippon Protocol takes “get your ass to the dojo” a few steps further. It runs something like this: “get your ass to the dojo even if you have no legs to stand on, no arms to paddle with, and no ass left to sit on!”
If you'd like to hear more stories of people who got permission to rise (and perhaps meet some of them), please join us at our next event.