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Gods of War: Tadahiro Nomura

The Gods of War series returns with a look at one of the greatest competition Judoka of all time.

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Tadahiro Nomura was born December 10, 1974 to a Judo family in Koryo, Japan. Nomura's grandfather ran a local Judo school, his father had coached 1984 Olympic gold medalist Shinji Hosokawa, and his uncle Toyokazu Nomura won gold at the 1972 Olympics. Needless to say, Judo was apart of Tadahiro's Nomura's life from the very beginning, and it was something he embraced entirely. As early as age three Tadahiro was playing with friends on the tatami mats at his grandfather's school. As he grew out of his toddling years Tadahiro started learning his first techniques, including his now famous Seoi Nage.

Tadahiro's competitive spirit became obvious at an early age as he encountered his first real Judo rival, his older brother. Tadahiro hated losing so much as a child that his inability to beat his brother at Judo created real tension in their relationship. All through high school he and his brother shared a dormitory, and despite their competitive drive and close living quarters, he eventually came to admire his older brother. As a teenager Tadahiro started collecting medals from local and national level competitions in his age divisions, and when he was old enough he enrolled in Tenri University and joined his father's Judo team there.

While his father was the head coach of his teams, he strove to avoid showing Tadahiro any favoritism and as a result actually taught him very little about Judo. Instead, Tadahiro relied on the team's assistant coaches for the bulk of his training. He credited this approach from his father for putting little to no pressure on him and allowing him to enjoy Judo, rather then feel like he had to live up to the family name.

Tadahiro Nomura was just 21 years old in 1996, an Olympic year, but he wasn't nearly established enough on the hyper competitive Japanese Judo scene to be considered for the Japanese Olympic squad based on merit. However, he was able to attend the All-Japan Selected Judo Championships in April of that year, which crowned a Japanese champion in each weightclass and acted as a qualifier for Olympic hopefuls. Nomura pulled off a stunning upset when he defeated the 1993 World Champion in the 60kg weight-class to win the division, earning him an automatic spot on the Japanese Olympic team headed to Atlanta that summer.

Nomura went to Atlanta as an unseeded competitor, which meant he would have one of the hardest roads. After defeating a Honduran judoka in the Round of 32, Nomura was faced with Russian representative Nikolay Ozhegin, the reigning world World Champion. It was Nomura's left-handed, very traditional Japanese Judo game against Ozhegin's Russian style of gripping and throwing. Nomura fell behind early but showed amazing recovery when Ozhegin dropped for a fireman's carry and Nomura was able to twist in mid-air and save himself from a match ending ippon fall.

As time ticked down it looked as if Nomura was set to go down as a footnote, a minor upset in the Japanese team selection that wilted under the bright lights. But then Nomura hit a rolling, one handed sode tsurikomi goshi to take the lead and win the match.

Nikolai Ogeguine (RUS) vs Tadahiro Nomura (JPN) 1996 Olympics - Round of 16

In the quarterfinals, Nomura beat Algerian Amar Meridja, who would go on to be one of the finest African Judoka of his generation, winning eight African Judo Championships. Next up was Dorjpalamyn Narmandakh from Judo powerhouse of Mongolia, who would lose to Nomura but go on to win the Bronze at the Atlanta Games.

With that victory Nomura was in the gold medal match and there he faced the 1994 European Games Champion, Italian Girolamo Giovinazzo. Again Nomura fell behind. Then using a technique he would become famous for, the drop seoi nage, Nomura would win the match and the gold medal, becoming the talk of the Judo world in span of just a few seconds.

Nomura's gold medal winning throw at the 1996 Olympics

Nomura was overjoyed and he credited this first gold medal as a huge boost to his confidence. He was now the defending Olympic Champion and every opponent he would ever face from now on would know his name. Nomura savored this, his mindset became "beat me if you can".

He returned to the All-Japan Selected Judo Championships in 1997 and repeated as the 60kg Champion. Nomura then went to Paris for the 1997 Judo World Championships, where he ran through the competition, culminated by throwing Giorgi Revazishvili of Georgia in the finals with a drop seoi nage to win.

After that however, Nomura's momentum from the 1996 Games had been spent. Back in the Japanese competition circuit a new player had emerged on the scene, Kazuhiko Tokuno, who would go on to become a serious rival to Nomura. In 1999 Tokuno would beat out Nomura to be the 60kg Japanese representative in the Judo World Championships and go on to take silver at the event.

Nomura was able to earn back his spot in time for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but his stock had dropped so much that he was again heading in as an unseeded competitor. For the second time in as many Olympic games, he found himself on the same side of the bracket as the defending World Champion, this time it was Cuban judoka Manolo Poulot.

Nomura made quick work of Yunbing Jia of China in the first round. He beat American Brandan Greczkowski in the Round of 16 and then Marek Matuszek with an outside reap. Then in the semifinals Nomura faced Poulot. It was a razor close match as both piled up minor points and Nomura was able to eek out a victory.

Nomura had again fought his way to the finals and there he faced Jung Bu-Kyung of Korea. Victory came almost instantaneously for Nomura. From the moment he gripped, Nomura attacked for an uchi mata that tripped up Jung just enough to get an Ippon fall just 14 seconds into the match.

Nomura had just won two consecutive Olympic gold medals, putting him in an exclusive and elite club of Judoka. After two Olympic cycles of intensive training Nomura had secured his place in Judo history. After his impressive run, he took some time away the sport, marrying former model Yoko Sakai in May of 2001.

In 2003 Nomura returned, winning the All-Japan Selected Judo Championships for the fourth time in his career. He represented Japan again in the World Championships at Osaka. Once more he faced a reigning World Champion in his bracket, Anis Lounifi on Tunisia. This time however Nomura was defeated. He bounced back and worked his way through the repechages (the loser's bracket) to take bronze, and earned his spot in the Athens Olympics.

The next year in Greece, Nomura was back in his top form. He ran through the competition, not a single point was score on him through his semifinal match. Then in the finals he faced Georgia's Nestor Khergiani, whom he defeated on points.

Tadahiro Nomura (JPN) vs Nestor Khergiani (GEO) 2004 Olympic Finals

With that win, Nomura became the only Judoka to win three Olympic gold medals, a feat that remains unmatched.  It was also the 100th gold medal won by a Japanese athlete in the Summer Olympics. While Nomura has voiced his intent to return to the Olympics, he retired from competition in 2008, though he did make a brief return to competition win the Swiss Open in 2013. His retirement marked the end of an amazing 18 year international Judo career, arguably the best in Judo history. Tadahiro Nomura is a welcome addition to the Gods of War Pantheon.

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