USC Paralympian heads to Tokyo in search of gold
Paralympian Robert Tanaka (right) uses the Uchi-mata throw to attack his opponent during the bronze medal match at the 2018 IBSA World Championships in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo: Courtesy IBSA.)

USC Paralympian heads to Tokyo in search of gold

Robert Tanaka, a mathematics and economics major at USC Dornsife, has learned to deal with visual impairment caused by his albinism to qualify for the 2021 Paralympic Games in judo. [5¼ min read]
BySusan Bell

USC Dornsife senior Robert Tanaka has spent 16 of his 21 years preparing to compete in judo at the Paralympics in Tokyo this summer.

Born in Denver, Colorado, to a United States federal government employee and a nurse’s assistant, he was diagnosed as a young child with albinism. The inherited condition, which causes little or no production of the pigment melanin, not only gives this fourth-generation Japanese American his distinctive pale skin, hair and eyes, but it also caused his visual impairment. Tanaka can only see five feet before objects dissolve into blurry, colored shapes.

As a child, he was delighted and relieved to discover judo because his combination of visual impairment and albinism made it impossible for him to play most other sports.

Now a judo champion, the modest economics and mathematics major answers eight questions about his preparation for what will be the fight of his life in Tokyo on Aug. 27 — a fight from which he hopes to emerge victorious and bring home a medal for Team USA.

How did you get involved in judo? 

Growing up, there weren’t a lot of sports I could participate in because either they were played outside and my skin is so fair I would get sunburned really easily, or they involved a ball that I would have to be able to see. There were a lot of people in our family who had been successful at judo, so my parents got me involved in that.

What motivated you to aim for the Paralympics?

I started at Denver Judo with Heidi and Scott Moore, who are actually this year’s Paralympic team coaches. Scott Moore, who also has albinism, is a Sydney 2000 Paralympics gold medalist and that’s what really sparked my interest and inspired me to pursue that goal.

I grew up watching the Olympics and thought it was cool, but until I started judo and met an actual gold medalist from Sydney, I just didn’t know that opportunity existed for people like me.

The Paralympics, in terms of judo for people with visual impairments, is the very top level you can attain. One day I just said to myself, “That’s what I want. That’s what I want to do.”

How did your first-ever judo session make you feel and what did you like about it?

I remember I was really scared, super nervous. The thing that really grabbed my attention about judo was the instructor let me throw him — obviously, he jumped, because I was only five years old — but in my mind, as a little kid, I was like, “Oh my God, I just threw this man. This is awesome.” And still today, when I catch somebody in competition and they just fly, that is the greatest feeling in the world. It’s hard to explain what it’s like, but making a super-strong guy just look like he slipped on a banana peel in a cartoon — that, to me, is an incredible feeling.

What is the difference between Olympic judo and the judo played at the Paralympics?

The only real difference is how competitors start each match. In able-bodied judo, you start 5 to 6 feet apart, but in Para judo, you start while touching each other, so that allows people with absolutely no vision to still be able to participate. I’m able to do both because I can see about 5 feet, but Para judo definitely is a lot different because I don’t have to rely on my limited vision.

How did you get involved in Para judo?

Robert Tanaka (right) trains at his home dojo, Ju Shin Kan Judo Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo: Gill Asakawa/The Colorado Sun.)

I started competing in sighted judo tournaments at the junior national level before becoming involved in Para judo when I was 16. I was able to travel with junior teams, which really gave me good experience because a lot of people that go into Para judo start off wrestling and make the transition, whereas I started solely with judo, which definitely helped me when I made the switch.

What are your greatest achievements to date?

Growing up, I competed in nationals and I took silver a couple of times. When I switched to Para judo in 2017, I took silver at my first competition, the Pan-American Championships in Brazil.

One of my favorite personal achievements was the 2019 IBSA World Championships — the first qualifying event for Tokyo. I’d never really competed on an international level before. I fought the whole day and ended up in the bronze medal match. I didn’t win, but it gave me confidence that winning a medal in Tokyo is totally possible.

What made you decide to come to USC Dornsife? 

USC was my dream school since I can remember. My dad, Robert Tanaka, was also an econ major and graduated in 1984. Whenever we visited L.A., we would always visit campus. When I was looking for schools … USC was really the only one where I felt, “I truly belong here. I would enjoy myself here. I see myself being successful here.”

I transferred in 2019 after my freshman year, so I was only on campus for about a semester before COVID hit. But my time there was fantastic. I had a ton of fun, met a lot of new people. It definitely lived up to what I thought it would be, so I’m really looking forward to going back this fall.

What are you looking forward to most about going to Tokyo and participating in the Paralympics?

The honor of competing at that level for the U.S. in the sport I’ve done most of my life. I get to wear both my last name and USA on my back. That will be an incredible feeling. For me, there’s no higher honor.

I also want to do my very best, not only for myself, but also my family. They sacrificed a lot for me to be where I am. It’s kind of giving back for them and also my coaches.

Also, I think it’s really important to try to inspire others to pursue judo. I have a younger brother, Nicholas, who is 17 and also has albinism, and I really want to show him that if you put your mind to it, there’s nothing to stop you from reaching your goals.