“I practice with really big kids all the time,” she said later. “I compete against girls my size and age, and I usually win because it’s a lot easier.”
During the same exercise session at the Kilbourne Center in Gurnee, another national judo champion, Nicki’s brother Robby, 8, and a boy his age wrestled on the mat like rambunctious polar bear cubs. “Judos made me a lot tougher,” said Robbie, who began the sport when he was 4. “My mom once made me take gymnastics an I didn’t like that at all.
” In July, Nicki, a 6th grader at Woodland Middle School, and Robby, a 3rd grader at Woodland, each took home first-place medals in their divisions in two national judo competitions. One tournament was held by the United States Judo Association; the other by the United States Judo Federation. The Schultheis siblings are products of the Gurnee Judo Club, which was founded less than a year ago by their father and coach, Tim Schultheis.
Judo, which is Japanese for the “gentler way,” is a competitive sport which opponents wrestle using moves designed not to cause serious injury. A match can be won instantly by throwing an opponent onto his or her back or by pinning an opponent on his or her back for 25 seconds. Otherwise, points are accrued.
The sport has several different levels of accomplishment marked by colored belts, which are worn over white pants and white kimono-style shirts. Nicki has reached the blue, or eighth , beginner level; Robby has obtained the orange, or fourth, beginner level.
“Judo is a sport that has a lot of competition, and the competition is really hard,” Nicki said. “When you are fighting, your opponent is not cooperating.”
Adam Buckly, 12, of Gurnee, is a member of the Gurnee club and often is Nicki’s sparring partner. Nicki practices with older children and boys because there are no girls her age at her skill level in the area. “She’s really tough. The first couple of sessions I couldn’t hit her; she just kept throwing me around,” Adam said with a laugh. “She’s hard to beat.”
The recent championships were held in San Francisco and Charlotte, and each drew 600 to 1,000 youths competing in various divisions.
Tim Schultheis, 39, a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, said he began the Gurnee Judo Club last October with three children -- including his own two -- in his neighborhood clubhouse. At the time, the nearest judo clubs were in Kenosha and at Cohen’s Judo Club in Buffalo Grove, where his children have trained, he said.
The Gurnee club has since grown to about 30 people, ages 6 to 53, and is now run through the Gurnee Park District. Tim Schultheis, who holds 2nd degree black belts in karate and judo, said his children became involved in the sport when he did about six years ago. “I just wanted something we could do together,” Tim Schultheis said. “I never dreamed they would be champions.”
Their children’s mother, Anne Schultheis, 39, said she was leery when they started. “As a parent, I thought I don’t want this to happen,” she said. “But it is a very gentle sport. I know the are good, and I was thrilled when both of them won. But I’ve seen a lot of tears and frustration--there is a lot of hard work behind it.”
Nicki and Robby Schultheis are both good students, and when they are not practicing judo, they take piano lessons and participate in other sports, their parents said. Nicki is a competitive swimmer and Robby wrestles and plays baseball.
“Nicki is just quietly confident,” Anne Schultheis said. “That’s what this sport is instills in kids--quiet confidence. And for Robby, it’s an energy outlet.”
Nicki and Robby said they plan to continue with judo. “I plan to stay in it for life,” Nicki said; and Robby said, “I’ll be in it till I reach 6th degree black belt, when I’m around 38.” Robby said the hours of training and the tense moments before a match are worthwhile. “I like winning medals that look nice and plaques and trophies that look nice,” he said. But his favorite part about judo is the sound that is made when he executes a successful throw. “I like the noise--when you throw someone hard, there’s that really loud noise.”