When you enter Hudson Premier Physical Therapy and Sports on Broadway and 48th Street in Union City, you wouldn’t think you would be walking into greatness, entering the world of a world champion.
You would believe walking into HPPTS would be the start of rehabilitating an injury or recovering from an illness.
You just might just be greeted by a small, slight man in a white jacket, a man of Philippine and Japanese descent, a doctor named Tomokazu Kato, the name embroidered across the left side of his chest.
Most in the offices call Dr. Kato by his Americanized nickname of Shawn.
The man also has another name that Kato can answer to. It’s called world champion.
The 30-year-old Kato recently competed at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Championships in Las Vegas and he came away with the gold medal in the World Master Male Rooster weight class.
“Rooster” is the name given to the lightest weight class, 125 pounds or lighter.
Just three years after Kato arrived in the United States, he’s a doctor of physical therapy and he’s a world champion in Jiu-Jitsu. Not bad at all.
Kato is a Weehawken resident – “I love it here,” he said – for the past two years after living in New Zealand for three years.
“I decided that the best way for me to better my education would be in the United States,” Kato said. “I needed to seek out some changes in my life and seek some adventure. I also knew I could get better training in Jiu-Jitsu.”
When he arrived in the United States, Kato first resided in Queens while he was pursuing his doctorate in physical therapy at Touro College on Long Island.
While he was growing up in the Philippines, Kato played a lot of sports.
“I played baseball,” Kato said. “I also wrestled. I like all kinds of different sports and was always active in different sports. It was a big part of my life.”
One day, Kato watched the Ultimate Fighting Challenge on television and became transfixed on the unique concept.
“I saw this small man use a choke hold and he choked everyone out,” Kato said. “It opened my eyes to a great martial art.”
From there, Kato discovered the art of Jiu-Jitsu.
“You use technique and leverage to get in the position to win,” Kato said. “I figured this would be good for me, because I’m a small guy. This helped me tremendously. I learned that you could control opponents and didn’t have to be really big.”
Kato decided he wanted to learn all about Jiu-Jitsu. So he started serious training with members of the famed Gracie family, who have dominated the sport both in Brazil and the United States for the last 20 years.
For the last five years, Kato has been juggling a ridiculously busy schedule, training, working and going to school. He does his training in New York as well, so there’s a lot of running around between Weehawken, Union City, and the Big Apple.
Kato has been training religiously with the famed martial arts instructor Marcelo Garcia.
“Marcelo is a legend,” Kato said. “It was always my dream to train there.”
Kato said that he had been training for the last few years for a shot at the World Master championships.
“It was always my goal to do the World Masters,” Kato said.
So in July, Kato headed to Las Vegas for his first shot at the World Masters championship.
“I wasn’t there for the experience of being there,” Kato said. “I wasn’t there just to compete. I was there to win. No one trained as hard as I did. My goal was to perform well at the highest level. I wasn’t there just to participate like some others.”
And unlike other competitors, Kato did not take a single peek at the competition.
“I don’t like to study opponents so much,” Kato said. “In my mind set, I have a game plan. I have my own strategy of what I have to do. I don’t study opponents.”
Kato had competed locally and more than held his own, but this was his first attempt at the world championships. And he won.
Kato defeated all four of the opponents in his weight class to capture the gold medal that weighs almost as much as he does.
The matches were televised, so his girlfriend, Patricia Ijares of New York, could watch.
“Every time I won, I made a kiss to the camera for her,” Kato said. “My girlfriend is so supportive of the whole process. She understands the training and she lets me train. After I won my match, I just moved on to the next match. I was pretty calm and confident. But when I won, it was ‘Wow!’ I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it. I had to cry on the side a little bit.”
To keep himself at the 125-pound weight class, Kato follows a strict diet.
“After I won, I was able to eat a little bit,” Kato said. “I like to eat.”
Kato said that he gets moody when he’s dieting, so he gives credit to the other workers at HPPTS.
“They’re the ones putting up with me,” Kato said.
Kato is still trying to wrap his head around the thought that he won the world title in his first attempt.
“It’s all very surreal,” Kato said. “I’m very happy and grateful. I’m blessed to have this title. I’m blessed to live in a great town with great people.”
Kato is also able to work on a lot of the local high school athletes from Memorial, Union City and Weehawken. In fact, last week’s Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week Lucas Pardo-Rea of Weehawken is a patient of Kato’s at the Hudson Premier Physical Therapy and Sports.
“It keeps me young, working with these kids,” Kato said. “I just hope that maybe I can be an inspiration to them that their physical therapist is a World Champion. I hope that I am able to inspire these kids to excel, not just in sports, but in the classroom and other areas. A lot of these kids are very good athletes and a lot of them are very happy.”
So what’s next for the World Champ?
“I try to compete every month,” Kato said. “I keep training like six days a week.”
Kato is pushing himself to compete in Secaucus Oct. 27 in the New Jersey Championships of the American Grappling Federation.
“I have to have tunnel vision,” Kato said. “I want to be able to do the best I can. We’ll see how well I can do. I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure on me now since I am a World Champion. I think I’ve proven myself now. I can just go out there and have some fun.”
And how long can Kato keep the hectic schedule and pace?
“I want to be able to compete until I can’t walk anymore,” Kato said. “There are a lot of guys in their 60s and 70s who compete. I want to be like that, as long as I stay healthy.”
And keep the right balance. That’s important as well if you want to be a World Champion like Tomokazu “Shawn” Kato of Weehawken.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com and Jim’s take on the Jersey City Board of Education’s cutbacks on high school sports. You can also follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.