98-Year-Old Woman Earns Highest Degree in Judo

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Flying Carp Productions

A screenshot of Fukuda from the documentary, "Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful," set to be released in the fall of 2011.

Watch out for this one. At 4 feet and 10 inches and weighing in at 100 lbs., this judo master may make a formidable opponent.

Sensei Keiko Fukuda, 98, is the first woman, and the only one currently living in the United States, to achieve a 10th degree black belt in judo, the Japanese martial art. Three other men, all living in Japan, currently hold the honor.

Fukuda still uses a wheelchair to get around, but she teaches three days a week at the Soko Joshi Judo Club in San Francisco, California. When she first received news of the promotion, she was stunned and started to cry.

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“Her first reaction was complete surprise, she just couldn’t believe it! She was very happy because this would help women, and then finally, she thought it was a dream come true,” Shelley Fernandez, her caretaker, told ABC.

The sensei is well-known in judo circles, and that, with her perserverance to the craft, is part of the reason she received the honor.

“She has been teaching judo for 51 years. I know, when I travel, not only in the United States, they talk about Sensei Fukuda. She is known all over the world and her devotion to judo is indescribable – she is committed,” Eito Saito-Shepherd, U.S. Judo Federation promotion board member, told ABC.

Flying Carp Productions made a documentary of Fukuda back in 2009, though it has yet to be released. You can find a snippet of the film here.

The documentary, named Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful, shows Fukuda’s journey long and difficult journey. She emigrated from Japan in 1966 to the United States to pursue judo rather than get married. She jumped hurdles of gender discrimination to achieve the rank she has today. A particularly moving scene in the documentary shows Fukuda crying for the many years she has spent to get to where she is.

“I just never imagined how long this road would be,” she said.

Fukuda is infused with the blood of one of judo’s greatest inspirations. It is no coincidence that Fukuda is the granddaughter of a Japanese samurai, Hachinosuke Fukuda, who taught jujitsu to Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. Fukuda is Dr. Kano’s last surviving student, according to Saito-Shepherd, a student of Fukuda, and Gary Goltz, president of the U.S. Judo Association.

98 years in the making, Fukuda has finally achieved what she set out to do.

“All my life, this has been my dream,” Fukuda told the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Zachary Cohen is a contributor for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Zachary_Cohen. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.