I was 6 years old when I took afternoon judo classes at the Montecito YMCA. Twice a week I’d walk down the hill from Montecito Union, put on my gi, and spend a couple of hours being flipped over the shoulder of my Judo teacher, Mr. Ota.
With a careful grip, Mr. Ota would pick us up, swing us over his shoulder, and guide us to the mat. Mr. Ota taught us to land in the middle of our backs, where we could best absorb the impact of the fall.
I’m 51 now. I’ve lived an active life. I’ve taken a lot of falls. But last year, I took a fall that eclipsed all others, and for which I owe Mr. Ota my life. I live in Colorado, and while skiing on the season’s first powder day, I hit a tree root, was ejected from my skis, and flew 80 feet before I hit a tree. As I hurled through space, I rolled, relaxed, and positioned my body to take the fall in the middle of my back. I broke parts of my vertebrae, ripped apart ligaments, and bruised my spleen. But I walked away.
Mr. Ota taught his students to absorb the physical act of the fall. He also taught us to take on the psychic act, to fall with dignity. And to always get up. Mr. Ota isn’t alive to read this, but to his descendants, I wish to communicate my gratitude to the man who gave us his afternoons and who taught us how to fall.