At 78 years old, Bellingham resident Ralph Bajema took a long journey to get to the top of his category in Judo.
Bajema is ranked No. 1 in the 73-kilogram, m10 division of Masters Judo by USA Judo, the sport’s national governing body. The m10 division is the highest in masters judo.
But this isn’t very new to the 60-year judo veteran.
“I got this award in 2012 also,” Bajema said in a phone interview. “I’ve not missed a national competition in 15 years. I was in Dallas in November for the President’s Cup National Championships, and in Reno last April, and then I’m off to Dallas again in early May for the National Senior Championships.”
Achieving a high rank isn’t the only accolade he has accomplished in the sport. Bajema has 10 gold medals, eight silvers and seven bronzes at the national level, he said.
“I’ve also competed at the World Championships, but never got above a bronze,” Bajema said. “I have three of those. One of my most proud moments was getting bronze at Kodokan Judo Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. That’s the world headquarters for judo, its in an eight-story building, two of them.”
But Bajema hasn’t been back to a world championship since 2005, when they were in Toronto, Canada.
Judo is a martial art and combat sport, where the object is to throw or takedown an opponent and then pin or submit the opponent. Practitioners are known as judokas.
“Most judoka find its ok to induce a little pain to induce submission, but never to injure,” Bajema said. “We want people to practice for tomorrow.”
A native of Bellingham, Bajema started judo at 17 or 18, he said.
“I was wrestling at the YMCA (on State Street) on a casual basis, and a fellow stopped in from Japan and had on a funny white outfit and I didn’t know what it was,” Bajema said. “It looked like pajamas, but turned out he was a judoka. We got to talking and practicing, and I ended up buying one of those funny white outfits.”
Now a fourth-degree black belt, Bajema helps out with judo in the area in a variety of ways, hosting an open mat session every Sunday and helping teach judo at the Judo Club at Western Washington University.
Apart from a year here or there and a brief five-year gap, Bajema has been completely invested in competing in judo.
“It’s really great exercise, and even though it’s a high-impact combat sport, it’s a safe sport,” he said. “You have to know how to take a fall, because there is a lot of throwing. I can still take a fall from a pretty high elevation without breaking anything. You become relaxed about it and then you’re relaxed during a fight and your energy lasts longer.”
His age might even be an advantage to some degree, as Bajema has more experience than others.
“As you get older, your outer muscular system declines, but I rely less on on that and more on internal factors,” he said. “As the years go by you gain more skill. After you do a single movement 20 or 25 thousand times, it’s engrained.”
That muscle memory, along with the relaxation Bajema said he feels during fighting, gives him the ability to react and adjust to any opponent.
“I don’t think about what I’m doing; my mind is blank, I have no plan,” Bajema said. “I’m very relaxed and have no plan. When he grabs ahold of me, it’s like grabbing ahold of nothing. Then at the right moment, there’s this spontaneous explosive motion.”
The Senior National Championships are held from May 2-3, in Irving, Texas. Bajema’s weight class competes on May 2. For more information on USA Judo, visit teamusa.org/usa-judo.