Grace Talusan is a two-time national champion in judo -- with a master's in music business

Reiko Sasaki

Grace Talusan at the 2016 International Judo Federation World Championships, where she earned a bronze medal.

Grace Talusan loves a lot about judo. She cherishes the friendships she's made, judo's "gentle way" philosophy and, of course, the exercise. She even likes the sensation of being thrown in practice, landing flat on a squishy mat with her "feet up in the air."

Yet Talusan, 39, a second-degree black belt who's won two national age-group championships, admits there is one thing at the top of her list: Being the thrower is far better than being the throwee.

"There's nothing like the feeling of throwing someone down on the mat. All of a sudden, everything's right with the world," she laughs.

Talusan, who lives in Mahomet, Illinois, grew up in Canada and became intrigued by martial arts when her mom watched Jean-Claude Van Damme action movies. "You'd see all these pretty kicks, so I always wanted to do that," she says. But her dad told her girls don't do martial arts, so she put it aside. Then, while attending Humber College in Toronto years later, she gave taekwondo a try. She stuck with it for years, earning a black belt.

Courtesy of Grace Talusan

Grace Talusan with her daughter, Devyn, who also does judo.

When she moved south to New Jersey for graduate school at William Paterson University, she noticed a judo club located above an old Ford dealership and showed up for a class. "I always wanted to learn how to fall and throw people," she says. Immediately, she felt at home.

"That first night I stepped onto the mat there were people from everywhere, retired CEOs and college kids, doctors, lawyers, firefighters, Olympians, and they were all amazing," she says. "It was the environment they created. It was one big family and I was hooked."

Talusan is now the teacher at her own dojo, Kokushi Midwest Judo, in Urbana. She started it two years ago and has 18 students, ranging in age from 5 and 7 (her daughter, Devyn, and son, Mattox) to late 50s.

She continues to learn, too -- often driving to Chicago to train at other dojos -- while also competing nationally and internationally in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But judo is her passion. It's a beautiful art she'll never completely master -- but keeps trying.

"The main aspect of judo is getting the person off balance," she says. "You're just in the right place at the right time when they're off balance and then you can throw them. A 120-pound woman could throw a 300-pound man, theoretically. It's the same principle, like you stumble over a box. The box is in the right place at the wrong time and then the person just tumbles over. If you can get under that person at the exact moment they're off balance, you can throw them."

Long before Talusan stepped on a mat, she was immersed in music. She played trombone in high school and earned money in college playing in military bands. She received her undergraduate degree in jazz performance, then earned a master's in music business. After school, she worked at a radio station and was communications manager for a music school.

She and her husband, Jim Pugh, moved to Mahomet when he became a full professor of jazz performance (trombone and composition/arranging) at the University of Illinois. He's played professionally for bands, on movie soundtracks and commercials, and tours during the summer with Steely Dan.

Talusan no longer plays the trombone because of a repetitive strain injury that surfaced in college, but she plays ukulele and piano. Her kids take piano lessons, but she wants nothing to do with teaching them. She'll teach them judo throws but not "Chopsticks."

"They see me outside of the dojo and they know they can sort of get away with things," she says. "It's difficult. That's why I don't teach them piano, because I lose patience."

She took some time off from judo while her children were young but has been back competing seriously for a few years, doing three to five tournaments a year, fighting in the 70-kilo (under-154-pound) division.

She's won back-to-back championships in her age group at the senior national championships in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, she won a bronze medal at the International Judo Federation World Championships. She's also competed twice in the Jiu-jitsu World Masters Championships, winning a silver.

One of the lessons she treasures from judo is "to always keep trying."

"Even if you're in a tournament and you lose your first fight, you might get thrown into the losers bracket, but you can still come back and fight your way to first place," she says. "It builds confidence. There's always another day, another match, another person to play with. It just never ends and you're always trying to get better."

Talusan trains in judo three days a week at her own dojo, and two days a week in jiu-jitsu. If she wants more, she'll make the 2 1/2-hour drive to Chicago for more mat time against opponents. She also lifts weights, runs and goes for long walks with her dog. She has a small gym in the basement of their home, plus a membership at a local YMCA where she can work out after she drops her kids off at school.

She's never had a serious injury, though she says, "I'm just in this constant state of being sore all the time."

Part of injury prevention is knowing how to fall, a big part of judo, she says. "When someone new comes into judo, we teach them to love how to fall," she says. "They don't love it, but it's sort of ingrained into them, their system."

It even comes in handy in day-to-day life. When Talusan slipped on some ice recently, she credits not getting hurt to knowing how to fall so the blow was absorbed by a large surface area of her body. At 5, her daughter has benefited, too. "[She] was on her scooter and she almost flipped out, but she managed to do a perfect front fall and she got up and walked away with barely a scratch," she says.

In 2016, Talusan received the Henry Okamura Memorial Award, named for the U.S. Judo Federation Hall of Famer who devoted much of his life to the sport in the Chicago area. It's given to those who are dedicated to the sport, emulate its spirit and philosophy and give back as teachers and tournament organizers.

To Talusan, it's that spirt of judo that makes it such an important part of her life. She has a network of friends across the country through judo and loves the camaraderie. It's an extended family.

"You go to a major tournament and all the same people are there to support you and help you out," she says. "They're always in your corner. That's what it provides, this sort of home away from home."

Judo's two main messages, she says, are "minimum effort, maximum efficiency" and mutual welfare.

"The philosophy of judo is not only training your body to do all these techniques, but also to train your mind and how to live your life," she says. "You're always there to help each other. ... Not only when you train are you helping yourself, but you're helping your partner get better."

Judo, she says, is something she'll be able to do the rest of her life. She marvels at the technique she sees in older judo players. They may be 80 or 90 with hip or knee replacements, but they "can just tap your feet and you're gone," she says.

"It's always like a chess match and you're trying to push each other to be better," she says. "That's the main thing I get out of it. Even if I'm completely sore or my finger or back hurts, I'll tape something up and go back on the mat for more. I can't get enough of it."

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