Weekend Warriors: The Most Unlikely Sumo Wrestler You'll Ever See
At 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds, Jenelle Hamilton doesn't look like a sumo wrestler. And when Hamilton, 34, tells people what she does, most have one of three responses: "[That] I'm not big enough to do sumo, I wear a blow-up suit or I wear that 'diaper thingy,'" the soft-spoken brunette says.
None of which is true, by the way, except for that "diaper thingy," called a mawashi, a traditional loincloth wrestlers wear during training and competition. Hamilton dons one every time she steps into a dohyo, or sumo wrestling ring.
For the past six years, the single mom and secretary for L.A. County has been pursuing her passion around the world in places like Taiwan, China and Russia, and earning accolades along the way: She is the defending U.S. national sumo women's lightweight champion and U.S. Sumo Open women's lightweight and open-weight champion.
Most recently, Hamilton shelled out for a ticket to Osaka, Japan, to compete in the 11th Women's Sumo World Championships at the end of August -- before she even qualified for a spot on the U.S. team. "I said, 'Screw it, I'm either going to Japan to compete or I'm gonna go to Japan and see my friends and cheer them on. One way or another, I'm going.'"
Luckily, she did qualify, defending her title in the lightweight division by placing first -- and earning the trip for which she'd already plunked down $700.
Hamilton's introduction to the sport happened in her native Southern California when a co-worker and former sumo champ, Troy Collins, set up a makeshift dohyo on a Venice Beach basketball court and invited her to participate.
"I saw a lot of what everyone else saw that day: a lot of weird people taking over the court and people sitting around watching these naked men with a loincloth wrapped around them just muscling each other around in a circle," she recalls. But after her first bout, she was hooked. "I figured, after that match, that wasn't so bad, you know? Three or four or five seconds and all the pain was gone. The match is so short."
She was also drawn to sumo's culture. "The sport demands respect, always," she says. "[After the match finishes], you are to go back to your side of the ring and bow out of respect for the soul and the spirits that have won and lost during the fight, so the egos are always checked at the door."
Soon enough, she was hitting the mat, training with Collins and learning the ins and outs of a sport steeped in tradition and still relatively taboo for women: At the professional level, the sport is restricted to male wrestlers in Japan, and women are forbidden from even stepping into a dohyo.
You can do anything you want. You can go find some crazy sport most people have never heard of, go do it and travel.Jenelle Hamilton, sumo wrestler
The gender skew, coupled with the sport's novelty status in the U.S., make it difficult for Hamilton to train with other women regularly. "You just don't find a sumo dohyo on the corner like you do a karate place or tae kwon do or any other sports facility," she says.
So, like other American sumotori (a designation for amateur practitioners), Hamilton trains where she can, finessing her signature "open-hand throat slap" technique at a small martial arts gym in Van Nuys, California, on weekends. The lack of female wrestlers means she often spars with sizable male opponents, like ex-professional Yamamotoyama Ryuta. He weighs almost 600 pounds.
"I just call that 'leg day,'" she jokes, referring to the intense lower body workout she gets trying to move him in the ring during their practice.
The goal of sumo wrestling is to force your opponent out of the ring, so most matches last mere seconds. Quick, explosive moves are key. During the week -- when she's not working, parenting or completing her master's degree in public administration -- Hamilton drops in at a local CrossFit box to round out her strength and agility, focusing specifically on her legs: "Squats. Lots and lots of squats. And Olympic lifting in general. Olympic lifts really got my mind in touch with what my hips were doing."
But on training for sumo specifically, which she usually does from April through September, she notes, "You can't have only strength. You can't have only technique. And you can't have only endurance or agility. You have to have a combination of all of them."
"The women's sumo wrestling scene is not that big in the U.S. like it is in other countries, which means that the women that are involved are a small yet dedicated bunch," adds fellow wrestler and defending U.S. Open women's middleweight champion Natasha Ikejiri, one of Hamilton's sparring partners. "Everyone knows everyone. It's like a big family."
At worlds, Hamilton faced off against, among others, a Russian opponent, Anna Zhigalova, more than twice her size in the open-weight competition. Neither she nor any of her teammates medaled, but Hamilton remains optimistic about the sport's future and her role in it. She plans to compete again at worlds next year, at the World Games in Poland in 2017 and even meditates on the possibility of participating if sumo makes it to the 2024 Olympic Games. It failed to make the list for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
"I was upset that I didn't take a win this year, but I had a good time, and I learned some new things to practice for next year," Hamilton says about worlds, where she tied for ninth place individually and the U.S. women's team tied for fifth. "I think we will be able to grow a strong women's team for the upcoming years and, hopefully, one of us will take a medal soon."
And while she crisscrosses the globe for her sumo family, it's the one back at home she says she really does it for: her 10-year-old daughter, Marie.
"On the outside, maybe it doesn't look that way. You know you're like, 'Oh, you're just traveling internationally to compete,'" Hamilton says. "But it's not. It's to show her that you can do anything you want. You can go find some crazy sport most people have never heard of, go do it and travel. Whatever it is that I do is to demonstrate to her that we're capable of doing it. If she finds that crazy thing she wants to do, if she puts forth the effort, she'll achieve it as well."