Willie Inserra Reaching for the Top

August 15, 2014
Willie Inserra

Willie Inserra

Back in the 1980s, Bill Inserra was the team captain of the Santa Rita High School varsity wrestling team in Tucson, Arizona.  One of his teammates had a judo background, and that’s when Bill realized that judo would give a wrestler extra tools in their wrestling toolbox.


In the years after that, Bill wrestled in intramural programs in college and in the Marine Corps.  By then he had a son, Willie.


“When Willie was five, I think I was still active duty Marine stationed at Quantico and so we got him exposed to judo there by Master Gunnery-Sergeant Cardo Urso, who was one of the founders of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.  He was running a small club workout there.


“Then I got reassigned to Florida, and that’s when Willie first started getting exposed to the local Florida competitions.  It was down there, and he was about eight years old, when I realized that he had a natural competitive spirit.  He would step on the mat and he would refuse to lose.  It was just his mindset that he was supposed to win every match.  He would keep pressing and keep pressing, sometimes winning matches in the last ten or fifteen seconds.”


His family then moved to Northern Virginia, where he became a member of Sport Judo, led by Sensei Maurice Allan.  Recalls Allan, “I remember when he came to our club several years ago.  He had this talent, this movement” in his judo. Allan also recognized that Willie had a great asset – his family.  “His dad is very analytical.  He can take a look at things and tell you what’s going on in tournaments and what people have done.  He’s a great motivator and vehicle for Willie.”  Willie is very happy that he joined Sport Judo.  “Sensei Allan helped me tremendously with my groundwork and setups for throws.”


Bill Inserra, Willie's dad

Bill Inserra

As Willie grew into adolescence, he started collecting national junior championships. “Even though I wasn’t the greatest as a kid, I knew I wanted to aspire to win the nationals, and as I started progressing I started winning and thought, ‘Oh, I can do this’.  I can be good, and go to the Olympics.  That’s the main dream that I’ve had since I was about ten years old.”


Bill also recognized that Willie not only had a personal, internal drive to excel, but that it helped develop a tight bond for his teammates and his team.  “It was that instinct that he would never talk about, but it was just something within him.  That’s when I realized that he had that spirit within him, not only in judo, but he picked it up because he also did some youth football.  It was one of those things – he has that competitiveness inside him that – he wants to win – if not for him, for the team.  He loves being part of a team.  Even with the high school or middle school wrestling teams, not only to help himself as an individual, but to help the team.  He puts pressure on himself, ‘My team needs me’. He has that spirit inside of him.


“I helped teach him to take some of the elements that he had learned from wrestling competition, which is very intense and very fast-paced, into a judo competition but using it in a controlled manner, using his speed along with his force and to be able to ensure that he was playing the game the way the rules are established, but also to give himself a little bit of an edge with that additional element of adrenaline.”


Sensei Maurice Allen

Sensei Maurice Allan

Maurice Allan, himself an Olympian, mentioned some of Willie’s natural talents. “He’s got this quickness about him.  He’s deceptively strong, but I’d call it a necessary strength.  It’s got nothing to do with lifting big, heavy weights, but strength-wise, he’s equal to anyone he fights at his weight.  He’s also got this quickness and good technique, and that’s a pretty formidable guy.


“I’ve seen Willie grow from this wee boy to the young man he is now.  I look at him now and I’m very very proud of him, and just amazed at how good he is.”


As Willie progressed through high school, he was faced with decisions about colleges, careers, and of course, judo.  “In my junior year I knew I wanted to do judo in college.  There was the Olympic Training Center, Colorado State, West Point, and San Jose State (SJS).  SJS has been the #1 college for judo, winning the collegiate nationals for years, with everyone else a handful of times.  I decided I wanted to go there. I went to visit a couple of times in my junior and senior years, and I knew that if I wanted to get my judo better, that’s where I’m going to reach the next level. And it happened.”  His dad agrees. “We made the choice; I think we made the right choice, to give him the opportunity to go to college at San Jose State University and train with Mike Swain.”


Willie is nothing less than effusive when asked about his first year at SJS. “When I first went in there my head coach, Shintaro Nakano,

Inserra at the 2014 Senior Nationals, Reno, Nevada

Inserra at the 2014 Senior Nationals, Reno, Nevada

said my technique wasn’t that good, and that before I could start doing anything else, they were going to get my basic technique into good form. I didn’t really use ashiwaza.  Usually in the setups I went straight to throws.  At SJS they taught me to use ashiwaza, to use foot sweeps to set up my throws.  This has opened my eyes to all these other ways of doing it.  It’s just great.


“Being at SJS now is just phenomenal; my judo has come to another level.  I won the collegiate nationals, and won all these tournaments.  And I’ve learned another side of judo such as ashiwaza.”


When asked to describe the experience of balancing college academics with top-level collegiate judo, Willie says he enjoys the challenge. “They understand that school’s first.  The senseis all understand that school comes first, grades are the most important, and then judo comes second.”


But judo is a very strong second. “They told the freshmen on the first day that the only reason you can miss practice is to study, or you’ve got a paper to do, or if you’re sick.  But besides that, they expect you to go to practice.  If you’re injured, they expect you to go to practice and watch.  Besides that there’s no other excuse.


“I find there’s a really good balance.  If I have a midterm due and I’m stressed out, they say I can take a couple of days off, study, get your work done, and then come back, train hard, and you’ll be good to go.  They want you to do better in school, to have a career, and then judo.  They are setting you up for that. That’s what I love about it.”


Sensei Allen and Inserra

Sensei Allan and Inserra

Yosh Uchida, the leader of the SJS judo program, also spoke to the freshmen early on. “Sensei Uchida told all the freshmen to ‘Leave your ego at the door.  I don’t care what you’ve done in the past – this is starting a new chapter. I care about whatever happens from now on’.  So the first few practices, I didn’t understand what he was saying – I was still fighting to win.  But he said ‘Leave your ego out.  Get thrown.  Stand up. Take falls. That’s how you win.’  At first, I didn’t want to get thrown in practice.  Then I slowly understood when Marti Malloy, Sensei Shintaro, Colton Brown (SJS team captain), all told me that I have to take falls to win.  And so I got thrown a lot more, but I was learning how to defend better.


“Not everybody knows that.  When I came back to my dojo in the winter, everybody was muscling me, and not doing judo.  And I told them that at SJS I had gotten thrown more times than I had thrown people.  I’ve lost more matches than I’ve won.  And Marti Malloy told me the same thing, that she had been thrown more than she had thrown people.   You have to get thrown to learn, and that’s what I’ve learned at SJS and it has helped me tremendously.”


When asked about future career plans, Willie is narrowing down his choices.  “I’ve finished up my freshman year and am now going into my sophomore year as a kinesiology major with an emphasis on athletic training.


“I plan to be an athletic trainer, but I’m not sure what I want to do yet, and still have that time to decide. I’m going to get all my core classes done, and then reassess what I’m going to do.  I think I may change my emphasis and lean more into physical therapy or physiotherapy or sports management.  I know I’m going to be involved in sports – that’s where my heart is.  I want to do something that has something to do with judo or physical training.  I should know by next year what I want.”


Willie also continues to show the sense of responsibility to his teammates, bringing the lessons learned at SJS back to Sport Judo, advising

Bill and Willie Inserra, manning the fund-raising table at the 2014 Virginia Open

Bill and Willie Inserra, manning the fund-raising table at the 2014 Virginia Open

them and others who are up and coming judokas:  “Take in as much as you can.  You have to be willing to learn more things.  Take in any advice anyone gives you. Go to camps – the head instructors can teach you things you never knew.  And when you learn a throw that you like, just practice and practice and practice that.


“Don’t learn too many throws (for competition).  As a kid, I was brought up to learn three main throws and I practiced them all the time.  And those are the three main throws I do in practice and in judo tournaments.  If I taught a kid six throws, and they don’t have a favorite throw, in the competition they’re going to just sit there, stiff, and they’re not going to know what to do.  So if you teach a kid to get one throw, your favorite throw, be an expert at that throw.  Learn setups for that throw, learn how to get your grip for that throw.”


And he emphasizes the importance of the grip: “Know the grip that you’re comfortable with, and fight for it.  Once you get that grip, work your throws. If you’re working for your grip really hard and you know you’re not going to get it, then use other grips for the opposite side, for lefty-right, it’s a full process.  So be really good at three throws and one really good grip.”


And of course, when it comes to newaza (matwork), Willie is true to his dad’s teachings.  “For me, wrestling helped me tremendously.  I went into

Sensei Takemori and new Shodan Will Inserra at the 2012 Eastern

Sensei Takemori and new Shodan Will Inserra at the 2012 Eastern

wrestling to help my judo newaza. Wrestling helped me learn pins, hip movement, know where to put pressure.  I learned at SJS judo, always be on offense. Don’t ‘belly–out’, giving your opponent the opportunity to choke you out or turn you and pin you.  Don’t give your opponent the advantage – always be on your back doing varying things with the guard.”

Bill is pleased with the progress that Willie has made. “When I got the opportunity to fly out and watch him compete at collegiate nationals, he came across a bit more mature, because when he was at home we may have spoiled him a little bit. But now he’s gone off to college and found his independence and he has matured not only off the mat, but also on the mat.


“In the past, he had found out how to win with the combination of his natural athletic ability and his competitive instincts, coupled with the training he enjoyed within the dojos that we have been exposed to.  Now you take it up to the next level and he goes to train with elite level athletes like Mike Swain, Sensei Shintaro, and when I saw him on the mat at the collegiate nationals, I was a bit taken aback.  He was able to progress in that short amount of time and take his game to another level within that one year.  Hopefully he’s got a few more years to continue to grow and develop while he’s out there.”


Sensei Allan is even more positive about Willie’s chances to rise to the top levels of judo.  “He’s good on the ground, and very good at standing. And he’s very good at figuring things out in the middle of a match. This is very difficult with all the noise and everything else that’s going on, and he’s got this great array of weapons.


“I could see him going to multiple Olympics – three or four Olympics if he chose to.  Initially people were thinking that 2016 was too early for him, and maybe a couple of years ago I might have said the same thing.   But now I’m totally convinced that he could make 2016.  I think that Willie can accomplish whatever goals he sets.  He’s got the discipline to do that.”


A recurring theme in the discussions about Willie being able to reach the level of the World Judo Tour is finances.


Willie's Fund-Raising Poster

Willie’s Fund-Raising Poster

 Bill Inserra explains. “He’s trying to get himself on the IJF world tour for the Olympic qualification period for the 2016 Olympics.  It began last month in May of 2014, and it goes through May of 2016.  Lots of countries are able to fund their top-tier athletes, so the US has top-tier athletes that they are able to help to ensure that they can try to get into the (world’s) top 22 or even the Continental championship.


“But given that much of Willie’s accomplishments to date have been at the junior and collegiate level, he’s still somewhat of an unknown quantity at the senior level.  This is only his second time at the senior nationals.  Last year he finished fifth, and this year he placed third, so he’s making progress.  But he’s at the point where he still needs to crack into that top-tier element.  Until he does that, it’s still a self-funding effort to be able to get to the Continental championship, to be able to get to the podium and start to get some recognition and get noticed.  Then we may be able to get some additional support.  But until then, we’ve been told that it’s pretty much a self-funded effort.


Sensei Allan also sees the difficulties. “He’s got to enter every tournament he can.  And he’s got to have the funding to do that.  And therein lies the problem.  In Britain, athletes get money, but our athletes don’t get anything.  Our athletes have to sell t-shirts, and to do other things to make money.


In the meantime, Willie and his dad were manning a table at the Virginia Open Championships earlier this summer, asking for donations to support Willie in his quest for international level judo, and the 2016 Olympics.


Willie also has a website to assist in this effort, at




Bill Inserra summed up his feelings about Willie as a young man, who just happens to be one of the best judokas in the country.  “He’s a great kid.  He’s got a good head on his shoulders.  I’m very proud that he has turned out to be the type of kid that we raised, in that I’m confident that he’ll make the right decisions on and off the mat as a citizen.”


And Maurice Allan also had a final word about Willie.  “I think it’s really important to be a good athlete, but also a good person, and he is that.  And he’s a great example to the kids.


Article and photos by Chuck Medani

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