USA Judo’s Jack Yonezuka Follows In His Famous Family’s Footsteps

by Lisa Costantini

(L-R) Jack Yonezuka, Nicolas Yonezuka and Nick Yonezuka pose for a photo.


There are two types of sports: one that relies on teamwork on the field of play, and one that puts all the weight and responsibility on the individual competing. USA Judo athlete Jack Yonezuka prefers to go solo, relishing the sole responsibility for his wins and losses.


“I like knowing that I’m the reason why I won,” said Yonezuka. “It's me who put in the work, and worked every day.”


He didn’t always have an affinity for individual sports. The 19-year-old actually started out playing team sports growing up.


“I was always an active kid, so I wanted to try everything,” he said. “I tried t-ball, basketball and wrestling. But by a certain age, I realized I liked judo the most.”


However, at a young age, he would get super nervous before a judo competition.


“Between 5-8 years old, I would cry before every competition because of it,” he said. “But after that, I loved competing.”


Around 11, he decided to focus solely on judo. It had quickly become his favorite among all the sports.


“I was also the best at it at the time too,” he admitted. Although that’s not surprising, considering that judo runs in his family.


Jack’s father, Nick, made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. Nick now runs the Cranford Judo Karate Center (JKC), which was originally founded by Nick’s father, Yoshisada Yonezuka, a two-time U.S. Olympic judo coach. Now, Nick’s two sons train at the center, including Jack’s older brother, Nicolas. The 20-year-old is a two-time junior world team member, and is ranked 45th in the world in the 81-kilogram weight class.


But despite growing up in a family famous for judo, the youngest Yonezuka said they “didn’t put pressure” on him to pursue the sport.


“They let me do what I wanted,” he added.


Pictures of the two senior Yonezukas hang on the judo center’s walls. Jack Yonezuka shared insights on what he’s seen of his father in action.


“I’ve seen one video of my dad getting thrown by [Toshihiko] Koga, one of the top Japanese guys,” he said. “But there’s not really much footage from back then. A lot of the photos he has of him and my grandpa are hanging up in my judo club, so I get to see those every day.”

(L-R) Nick Yonezuka and Yoshisada Yonezuka watch over a sparring match.


He started the year making the transition from the 66 kg. division to 73 kg. In August, he became the first American in 30 years to medal at a Junior World Championship when he grabbed bronze in the 73 kg. weight division in Ecuador. He celebrated his achievement via social media, writing “I will remember for the rest of my life!” on his post.


To make the medal more impressive, he was selected to the team just three days before the start of the competition.


The West Long Branch, New Jersey native added, “I was still training and felt prepared enough to potentially do some damage. … I believe I showcased the best version of myself and made many people proud!”


That accomplishment earned him a spot on another world team. This time, he joined the seniors.


Two months after Ecuador, he was called up to the senior world team, where he joined his older brother in Uzbekistan. But, his first senior world championship experience was cut short after he lost in the first round to the current Asian champion.


Mentally coming back from a loss is difficult, Yonezuka remarked when asked the hardest thing about his sport.


“I just need to stay consistent,” he said. “All those top-level players have been doing it longer than me, so they have a bit of an edge as far as experience goes.”


In addition to training twice a day — weights in the morning, randori (freestyle practice) at night — his routine also includes long walks where he manifests coming out on top.


“I like to envision myself winning,” he shared. “(I) envision the entire day: warming up, walking out onto the mat, bowing, the whole thing. I tell myself I am capable of doing anything.”


It’s a motto similar to the one his dad often repeats: if there is a will, there is a way.


“He knows I want to be an Olympian and tells me if I put in the work, you’ll get there,” said Yonezuka.


A part of his Olympic dream entails competing in front of his home country.


“I don’t want to put the pressure on medaling,” he began. “But I would like to be on the 2028 Olympic Team in L.A.,” he said. “That’s the main goal because it's in the U.S.”


For now, Yonezuka juggles the workload of being a Team USA athlete with being a full-time college student. He is currently in his second year at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey.


“I am doing classes online right now, studying education,” he commented.


When his competition days come to an end, the 19-year mentioned he would like to coach judo and be a physical education teacher, securing the family legacy another decade into the future.


“That’s what I hope I’m doing in 10 years,” he concluded.

Lisa Costantini has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than a decade, including for the International Olympic Committee. She is a freelance writer who has contributed to since 2011.