COVER STORY:A hard-knock life

Strolling through the front door of the Minkin household, you wouldn’t see anybody — unless you looked down. They’d all be busy rolling around on the floor.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, members of the Half Moon Bay family might show up at work or school or San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea looking like extras from “Fight Club.” When a sibling developed a black eye or bruise, the most common familial inquiry was, “Did I do that?”

But, notes family matriarch Carolyn Minkin, 60, neither she nor her four children ever put a hole in the wall — or each other. And that’s saying a lot when you’re raising a family of judo champions.

“That’s how we communicate — with touching and throwing and tripping and choking,” said a laughing Minkin, a mother of four judo black belts and a black belt herself.

Minkin’s youngest child, daughter Charlee, 22, has proven to be the most effective “communicator” of the lot. In fact, she’ll be representing the United States in the Athens Olympics, which kicks off on Friday, Aug. 13. It’s the ultimate payoff after a lifetime of throwing and tripping and choking.

“I’ve given my body to judo,” said Charlee Minkin, flexing a muscle and inducing her dislocated left shoulder to levitate unnaturally.

“I’ve had, well, everything. You name it, I have it. I’ve had two surgeries on my right knee. By the time I’m 30, I’ll probably have to have a completely new knee put in.”

In fact, after the Olympics, Charlee — who competes in the 52 kg. (114 lb.) division — will undergo a third surgery, and, hopefully, will be able to break into a run for the first time in years.

But despite being stricken with physical ailments more befitting someone run over by a truck, her pain faded — ever so temporarily — when she won the final match at the June U.S. judo trials in San Jose, earning a spot in the Olympics.

The five-minute bout capped four years of training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs while she attended the University of Colorado.

“For months before the trials, I hadn’t been sleeping. I had to take sleeping pills. Every time I lay down, it was constantly running through my head: What do I need to do? How will it play out? That’s what the Olympic trials and the Olympics are all about: Who’ll take the pressure and walk through it and who’ll crumble?” said Charlee.

She didn’t crumble. After she captured the all-important bout, family and friends charged the mat, and Charlee bounced from hug to hug shouting, “We did it! We did it!”

“The tears I’ve cried, the victories, the losses, all of them became worthwhile at that moment. There’s a meaning to it, finally.”

While the Minkin children all celebrated b’nai mitzvah, Charlee neither obscures nor flaunts her Judaism. Her friends and colleagues all know she’s Jewish. Others have been “shocked” to find out. Perhaps the idea of a Jew excelling at a rough, grappling sport is alien to them. Perhaps not. Charlee doesn’t have time to think about it. She’s too busy training.

And for her, judo has brought a new meaning to the term “physical therapy.” She followed her older siblings onto the mat at age 5, right at the time her father died. Stephen Minkin, a Green Beret and Vietnam veteran, crashed his small plane in Alaska where he was a bush pilot.

Charlee soon lost herself in the sport. After three years of watching mother Carolyn and siblings Zisa, Ben and Davina, she took her first official lesson on a Thursday and won her first tournament on a Saturday. Carolyn was constantly shlepping her athletic children from Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco to judo training to weekend tournaments to Sunday school, all while holding down a teaching job.

Training “is my escape, it’s my addiction. It’s my passion,” Charlee said. “It’s what I know. People think I’m always working out. But I’m not there just to be there. I have a reason for it.”

It may come as a surprise to readers — and viewers of the “Austin Powers” movies — but there is no such thing as a “judo chop.”

Judo isn’t about punching or kicking — or, for that matter, breaking boards. It’s about wrestling and grappling and throwing. A match ends when one fighter scores an ippon, or knockout, following a clean throw, pins an opponent for 25 seconds or chokes him or her into submission. After five minutes, matches are decided by a three-referee panel.

“Karate and tae kwon do, those are the glamour sports. You look good spinning in the air and doing back-kicks, but, as Bruce Lee said, ‘Can you fight?'” said two-time U.S. Olympic judo coach Willy Cahill of San Bruno, a longtime instructor of several members of the Minkin family.

“Judo is intense. It’s like wrestling. You watch a college or high school wrestler. That’s an intense sport; you better be a good athlete.”

Cahill settled upon judo because he was tired of karate competitions where his opponents’ tap registered as many points with the judges as when Cahill knocked him across the room.

“In judo, you can throw a guy down as hard as you want. Or choke him until he passes out. [Karate and kung-fu] look good, like a dance. Judo is not pretty.”

Cahill, 69, could be considered the godfather of American judo. His protegees are scattered throughout the nation, including 2004 Olympic coach Brett Barron. He has coached or advised many of the nation’s best fighters. And, in several key aspects, Charlee Minkin stands out from the rest.

“There are two things about Charlee,” said Cahill.

“She stays focused. And when she starts training, it’s hard to get her to stop. You worry about her over-training. A lot of times you have to say, ‘Hey, that’s enough,’ and make sure she goes home.”

Cahill thinks his former student has a fighting chance to walk away with a medal, which would be just the eighth won by a U.S. athlete since the sport was introduced to the games in 1964.

“Her biggest opponent is this girl from Cuba [Amarilys Savon]. Two years ago, she blew Charlee out of the water. Within seconds, she’d thrown her down and the match was over. They’ve had eight fights and Charlee has lost them all,” he continued.

But Charlee is gaining on her.

“The last three fights have gotten closer and closer and, in the last one, Charlee lost in a split decision. I told her that’s where she wants to be right now. She’s improving and the other girl is getting stale. If she can put Charlee away in one throw, she isn’t trying new things.”

Charlee said that a medal is “the ultimate dream … Who’s satisfied with losing?”

She certainly isn’t satisfied with merely qualifying. While many of America’s highest-profile athletes have cited Olympic terrorism as an excuse for skipping out on the games (and the Greeks’ comically inept planning and construction practices haven’t inspired much confidence), it will take more than terror rumors to keep Charlee away from her dreams.

In the past four years, she’s traveled to a number of countries where U.S. judo’s official governing body recommended against wearing U.S. gear in public.

“I’m more worried as an American than as a Jew,” she admitted.

“People are definitely worried. But it’s something you accept and you take.”

Following the Olympics — and her knee surgery — Charlee is uncertain if she’ll begin a run for the 2008 games. She has a year remaining in her studies at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and, sometime in the future, hopes to open a judo school with her brother, Ben.

“I definitely want to be involved in sports in some way. I love training and I love being in competition. I want to open up a fight academy with my brother,” she said.

“Then I can live off of him for the next few years.”

Both Charlee and Carolyn Minkin laugh hysterically at this.

“Just kidding,” Charlee adds.


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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.