Just weeks before the upcoming 2015 US Sumo Open, I walk into what looks like a typical martial arts studio here in Southern California. I'm not sure what to expect. I'm told to take off my shoes. The wrestlers are setting out a white mat with a teal circle in the middle of the floor. They're each wearing a mawashi, one of those traditional sumo wrestling belts. Most are wearing bike shorts or boxer briefs underneath. But only one sumo wrestler is wearing a shirt.
"So we put a mawashi around me and I watched a couple people go at it in the ring and so I just did what they did and I've been hooked ever since"Jenelle Hamilton, sumo wrestler
"By day, I'm a secretary and by night, I'm a sumo fighter!" says Jenelle Hamilton, a single mom, grad student and Girl Scout leader. "I tell people that I'm a sumo wrestler — and these are people that know me for a long time — and they're like, 'Oh, that's so cute! You think you're a sumo wrestler or whatever.' And then time goes by and maybe a half a year or whatever, and it comes up again, and they'll say to me, 'I thought you were just kidding.' And I'm like, 'No, I'm hopping on a plane tomorrow to go sumo wrestle in some other country. I'm not just kidding.'"
Jenelle got her start in sumo six years ago. A co-worker who knew Jenelle had done kickboxing in high school said, "Come, try sumo. We need some women." And so Jenelle's co-worker took her to Muscle Beach in Venice.
"They laid down the ring, and I was told, 'Do what they do,'" Jenelle recalls. "And so we put a mawashi around me and I watched a couple people go at it in the ring and so I just did what they did and I've been hooked ever since."
Jenelle's not going all WWE and throwing guys out of the ring today. That's the goal: push your opponent out of the ring or make him touch the ground with anything but the bottoms of his feet. You don't earn points. You push someone out or down, you win. Period.
There's no one here today in Jenelle's weight class, but she says what really matters is strength and strategy, not size.
"I think it helps maybe get the stigma out of peoples' minds that you have to be this 300, 400-pound person to compete in this sport," she says. "We can acquire athletes from all different ranges of weight and athletic abilities."
I've got to admit, as a rec hockey player, I'm a bit jealous of the muscles that define Jenelle's shoulders. Looking around, there's a chubby guy, a skinny guy and everything in between.
The practice starts. Jenelle's long braid of brown hair flies up as she slams her hands into an opponent's neck, using her gymnast frame to push him out of the ring. Obviously, Jenelle is not a stereotypical sumo wrestler.
"Everyone has the opportunity to win," she says. "Just because you're like me, 130 pounds, and you go against a competitor that's 300-plus pounds — you know, three times my bodyweight — I still have the opportunity to win. So it takes a lot of strength, agility."
I wanted to interview other women who train with Jenelle. They pretty much don't exist. She mostly travels to international competitions on her own, meeting teammates from other parts of the country.
"For us, our minor leagues, if you would say, is the national competition," Jenelle says. "We don't have the competitions throughout the year that the men get to go to because none of us show up."
I totally would drop the gloves — I mean, bow politely and try to fight Jenelle on that mat. But I'm nursing a fractured wrist and broken toe, so I decide for the sake of my doctor's bill, probably better not to. Jenelle won gold in lightweight and bronze in the women's openweight division at the US Sumo Open last year. And she's heading to the Sumo World Championships in Japan later this summer. Women's sumo — at least on the amateur level — is growing in Japan. Here in the U.S., Jenelle is looking for some competition and she promises she'll go easy.
"Sure, I can just mull you over, but what fun is that if I'm just going to do that all the time? I want to fight," she says. "So bring it. And if I have to teach you how to do it, then I'll take the time to do it."
Jenelle is bummed sumo didn't make the short list for the upcoming auxiliary games in Tokyo. She says the 2020 Olympics in Japan would have really boosted her sport. But even though I can't take her on right now, you can.
"See what competitions are coming up and just sign up to compete," she says. "And then you can just be like me and be told, 'Do what they do!' and then you can have a go at it."
This segment aired on July 25, 2015.