8th Dan, Shihan
Senior Instructor - New York Aikikai; Technical Director - Australia & Belgium
"A Good Challenge": A personal impression of a most important Winter School for Aiki-Kai Australia
Photographs and text by John Litchen, Nidan, Gold Coast Dojo, Queensland, Australia
Editor's Note: we are happy to reprint this inspiring account of Sugano Sensei's return to teaching, which was first published on the Aiki-Kai Australia web site (www.aikido.org.au). We thank John Litchen (Editor of Aikido Australia) and Aiki-kai Australia for granting permission to reprint it, and John Watson and Andrew Dziedzic for their valuable assistance in setting up and supporting our communications. We are very happy to have made contact with the members of Aiki-Kai Australia, and to have taken a step toward closer relations among students of the Shihankai Senseis.
There was a large group of us sitting in seiza waiting to welcome Sugano Shihan — not with trepidation, but with concerned anticipation. This was to be Sensei’s first teaching seminar only three months after the life-saving operations that resulted in the amputation of his left foot, as well as part of the lower left leg in order to fit prosthesis.
Many of us were still coming to terms with the idea of Sensei being an amputee, and wondering what this would do to his Aikido. We had all followed his progress as reported on the New York Aikikai web site, but none of us had any real idea of how he would be.
All we knew was that it had taken enormous courage to come on such a long journey (New York to Sydney) so soon after the trauma of an amputation.
The word was that he would be taking the morning class each day, and there was a lot of excited speculation as how he would do this. We had naturally assumed that he would supervise while other senior Shidosha took the classes, but to actually teach — could this be true?
It was cold outside on Monday, the first day of training, but the sun was shining, promising a lovely day. Sensei arrived wearing a long black overcoat, which he took off and handed to one of the senior students who had accompanied him along the path to the dojo. They were there to offer assistance if it was needed but Sensei had used a walking stick and calmly walked along the uphill path and up the steps entirely on his own. He placed his walking stick against the wall beside the entrance and stepped backwards onto the mat leaving his sandals at the edge. He turned to face us and smiled.
Tony Smibert Sensei, who is Vice President of Aiki-Kai Australia and a Vice Chairman of the International Aikido Federation, stepped onto the mat to welcome us all to Sensei’s winter school and thanked Sensei for the enormous effort it took to get here. He finished his brief speech by saying: “At the end of the last summer school we thanked Sensei with a round of applause. I’d like to begin this school with a round of applause as a way of thanking Sensei in advance.”
The enthusiasm of the applause almost lifted the roof off.
Sensei walked slowly towards the centre with only the slightest wobble betraying the fact that he was still getting used to walking with his new prosthesis. He paused in front of the Kamiza and for a few seconds seemed pensive. Facing us he said: “I haven’t quite worked out how to sit down yet.”
Several senior students appeared ready to jump up and run over to assist him, but their help wasn’t needed.
Sensei put his right leg back behind as if preparing to do a backwards roll. He lowered himself slowly, and supporting himself with his right hand, he sat down with his left foot forward, and his right leg crossed beneath it. He could not bend the left leg more than 90 degrees, and of course the foot part of the prosthesis could not bend either. Still he seemed perfectly relaxed with his back straight and his arms extended so the backs of his hands rested on his knees.
After a few moments he turned around to face the Kamiza and we all took formal bows.
Beyond the etiquette of the beginning Sensei then told us about his operation. He considered it “very interesting” that the doctors asked him to sign papers allowing them to amputate his left big toe but went on to amputate his foot. When he woke up they explained that the infection was spreading extremely rapidly and they had had no choice. They also informed him he would need a further operation when he was ready for the prosthesis which would be designed especially for him.
He found this interesting!
He joked about how surprised he was and that his first thought was: “This is going to be a good challenge.” He went into some detail about the second operation needed for shaping the bones so they would fuse together to form a good base for fitting the prosthesis. It would take 6 months for them to fully fuse. He talked about the problems he had with loss of blood and high temperatures and other complications brought about by his diabetes. He asked us if we had any questions and was happy to answer them.
This went on for some 30 minutes or more when suddenly he told us to stand. While most people struggled to get up, shaking stiff legs to get the circulation flowing, he stood up with ease.
After the misogi breathing and the focus exercises he went on to start with Tai no henka from gyaku hanmi katatetori. As he moved offline to lead Uke into a back stretch he was obviously feeling his way, adjusting balance with the odd small step at the finish of the movement. Uke was cautious also, not attacking too fast. Once everyone was doing the exercise he moved about observing as he always does, correcting some, and just observing others.
Sensei then demonstrated kokyunage and iriminage which he managed with ease. The rest of that first class was built around exercises with bokken relating to and including his Ichi no ken pattern.
When the class was over and we had all bowed Sensei walked with ease to the edge of the mat. He told us who would be taking the next class, and also announced that a class would be taken by a surprise visitor, Phillip Lee of Aikido Shinju-Kai Singapore, who was on holiday in Sydney with his family. He had unexpectedly dropped in to pay his respects.
The next day (Tuesday) Sensei again surprised everyone. We thought all his classes would follow the same pattern as Monday’s, focusing on bokken, but right from the start he was more active, moving with more confidence. He had us doing iriminage and kokyunage and a number of variations. Only towards the end of the class did he call for bokken and we practiced his Ni no ken pattern.
On Wednesday Sensei entered the dojo without the slightest wobble, walking as well as he always did. This time he had us start by sitting cross-legged with our hands palm up resting on our knees index finger and thumb just touching. He asked us to imagine a triangle connecting the forehead with each point where our fingers touched. “This is an exercise to teach awareness,” he said, but he didn’t explain more than that. He then told us he is learning to extend through his knee so that the prosthesis acts the same as his normal leg. He said he can feel the ground as if his foot was a normal foot.
When we stood up he demonstrated Tai no henka 2 different ways. His Uke was moving with more confidence and Sensei responded with such ease and fluidity that it was impossible to think of him as an amputee.
He then explained before we started practicing that he was taking it easy because the two bones in his leg have not yet properly fused together. This will take a few more months, after which a new and better designed prosthesis will be fitted.
By then there will be no holding him back!
It was astonishing how well he was moving by the third day of the school. If you watched from the side of the mat he appeared to be moving as he always had, with impeccable timing and absolute precision. It was truly hard to imagine that part of one leg was a prosthesis.
At the end of the class he sat on the side of the mat and showed a small group what the prosthesis actually looked like, pulling up his gi trouser leg so we could see it clearly. He even offered to lend it to one of the girls because she had twisted her ankle and for a few moments was unable to walk properly.
On Thursday and Friday it was more of the same with each of those classes studying 1st 2nd and 3rd bokken patterns with variations. On Saturday morning we did the 4th and 5th of his bokken patterns to finish the complete set. After that, it was all over with Sensei thanking us for being attentive, and for maintaining the high standard exhibited during 1st 2nd and 3rd Dan grading tests on Friday afternoon.
I think everyone testing was determined to show Sensei their very best. In fact everyone throughout every day’s training performed at the highest level possible in an effort to show Sensei that if he could come all the way from New York so soon after having a foot amputated, they were going to make his trip worthwhile by doing the very best they could at every training session. I might also add that there were some wonderful classes taken by other senior instructors, especially the female instructors who Sensei asked to teach, and who are often not given the respect or credit due to them. All the instructors showed by their examples how inspired they are by Sugano Sensei.
A gift from everyone was presented to Sensei by the “newest student at the seminar” then it was all over — Mats to be taken back to their respective dojos, students to return far and wide across Australia. Sensei would stay in Sydney with his family for a while before returning to New York.
We would all go away thinking: “what a remarkable person Sugano Shihan is.”
He has rapidly transcended a difficulty that would flatten anyone else and is doing better Aikido than ever. It seems to me he has moved into a higher plane and by his example has shown us that nothing can stop you if you have the desire and capacity. This was a truly inspirational Winter School — an event Sensei has been conducting in Australia for forty years — and one that will be talked about in Australia for years to come.
Thank you Sensei!