By JOHN MILLER - Chronicle Staff Writer
Aikido Master Chose Different Path
Hidden behind the closet door in Greg Olson's Romney Gymnasium office are the symbolic remains of the 50-year-old's former life.
Trophies litter the floor, gathering dust.
"This is who I used to be," said Olson, closing the door and banishing the awards once again to darkness. "This isn't me now."
The Montana State University physical education professor won the trophies at judo competitions in the late 1960s and early '70s, when he dreamed of becoming a member of the U.S. Olympic Team.
One trophy is for fourth place at the North American championships. Others are for state and regional titles. He just missed a slot on the American team for the 1970 Pan Am Games.
The Duluth, Minn., native grew so serious in his quest for Olympic glory that he traveled to Seoul, South Korea, in 1971 to train with some of the top judo teachers in the world. A year later, however, during a six-week Christmas time vacation, a side trip to Japan was to provide Olson with a revelation -- the revelation -- that would eventually drive him to cast the trophies into a haphazard heap at the bottom of his office closet and abandon 15 years of judo training.
He had been invited to visit a dojo in downtown Tokyo to learn about the new martial arts form a friend was training in.
"I walked in and saw Aikido and knew right away that was the path," Olson remembers. "That was the way I wanted to go."
Aikido is a 20th-century martial arts discipline developed by a Japanese man named Morihei Ueshiba. Beyond this, however, defining just what "Aikido" means grows decidedly more difficult.
"Whenever I move," Ueshiba once told his students, "that's Aikido."
"Aikido is not a way to fight with or defeat enemies; it is a way to reconcile the world and make all human beings one family," appears in one text. "The secret of Aikido is to become one with the universe," offers another.
Literal translation of the word comes out something like, "the way to harmonize the life energy."
Olson, reclining in his Romney office, muses that Ueshiba, a master of several styles of classical jujitsu before making his historic break, grew disenchanted with traditional martial arts during the years preceding World War II because the competitive philosophies that fueled them ultimately led to his pupils' deaths.
"Historically, it was teaching people to destroy each other," Olson said. "O'Sensei (as Ueshiba is known in Aikido circles) decided to change it as a gift to the future of humanity."
Now, a quarter-century after Olson's own transition from judo to Aikido -- he returned to Tokyo for more than a year in 1976 to train with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the son of the discipline's founder -- he continues to teach Aikido courses at MSU. In fact, they're among the most popular in the PE department.
In addition, Olson's Martial Arts Center -- his "dojo," if you will -- on Wallace Avenue is entering its eighth year of existence and now includes some 40 members of all skill levels. Just last January, he moved to a new location across the street; on Friday afternoon, sunlight crept into the third-floor room, where Japanese writing and a picture of Aikido's founder adorn the walls.
On the soft mats here, Olson, now a fifth-degree black belt, demonstrated Aikido techniques with a pair of instructors from the school, Cheryl Moore-Gough and Scott Brady. Bodies flew through the air.
Moore-Gough's body. Brady's body. Olson -- whom the instructors also call "Sensei," literally "the one who has gone before" -- barely broke a sweat.
And while this might seem like violence to a mind steeped in traditional Western notions of conflict, the three were quick to point out Aikido's central paradox: It may look like fighting, they said, but it's not fighting. What appears to be competition is really no competition at all.
"What you have here is a subduing technique," Moore-Gough said. "Nobody is injured."
"If you watch very closely, he's moving before I even get to him," Brady said, picking himself up from the floor. Again.
"The thing is, Greg didn't have to hurt me. He just had to control me."
Olson circled gracefully across the room, like a dancer in the weak light.
"There's a blending," he said. "The person attacked is non-defeatable through movement. One of the joys of training is two people coming at you and giving you a lot of energy."
But does Aikido really work?
Olson smiles and recalls an incident when he and his family -- he doesn't look old enough to have high school and college-aged kids -- were eating at Godfather's Pizza on West Main Street.
Leaving the restaurant, Olson's wife, Peggy, pointed to the parking lot and said, "Hey, somebody's in our van."
A pair of teen-agers, brawny football players from Bozeman High School, were rifling through the van's interior, looking for tapes to steal. Olson sped to the van, and the kids scattered across Main Street toward the Albertson's supermarket parking lot.
"I ran after one, and as I got closer I repeated softly, 'I'm going to catch you, I'm going to catch you,'" Olson said.
The boy fell on the slick winter asphalt, and Olson was able to restrain him -- in a powerful but non-injuring Aikido joint lock -- for nearly 15 minutes until officers from the Bozeman Police Department arrived. Boxing skills likely would have left the teen injured. Likewise karate or judo, he said.
When the boy and his father later stopped by Olson's home to apologize, Olson said he was curious to learn just how it felt to someone not acquainted with Aikido techniques to be subdued by them.
"I was interested in his perception of what was happening," Olson said. "He told me, 'I don't know. It felt like I kept slipping on the ice or something.'"
Gordon Elder, a first-degree Aikido black belt and instructor at Olson's dojo on South Wallace, said he likes the way Olson "presents his art."
"It's a high-energy, fast-moving (activity) but done in the spirit of protecting somebody," Elder said.
Added Moore-Gough: "What I really admire about Greg is he was a world-class judo competitor, he got to the top, and he discovered that domination wasn't where it was at. He has the choice, and he chooses not to hurt you."
Prior to leaving judo behind in 1975, however, Olson said he had hoped to train in both disciplines. But he soon realized he couldn't reconcile the aggressive aspects of judo -- "the cost is putting two people against one another," he said -- with the gentler Aikido.
"I went up to my (judo) students at the time in Romney and I told them, 'I quit. I'm going to do this new art,'" he said, adding that while Aikido has had a profound impact on him, the initial awakening wasn't like the blow from a hammer.
"It's like a whisper," he said. "It starts to bounce around in your consciousness."
Now, after a quarter of a century immersed in what many describe as a means of achieving physical and psychological self-mastery, Olson said it has become difficult to separate life from philosophy.
"I would say it's who I am," he admitted. "Of course, I try to give to the other aspects of my life. But the philosophical aspects (of Aikido) have certainly imbued me with a different world view."
That isn't to say that Olson's flapping around out there in some mystical Aikido never-never land. He makes it clear that despite the discipline's initial spiritual underpinnings, modern Aikido is firmly anchored in the secular world.
In addition to numerous articles he's written about the martial art discipline, he published a book, "Aikido: A Beginner's Text" in 1996 and is a member of the Society of Martial Arts in Manchester, England, where Olson just last summer read a pair of scientific papers he'd written about the physiological impact of Aikido on the human body.
He is proud of his Bozeman dojo, where students from Costa Rica, Brazil, Germany, Italy and far-off Malaysia -- as well as Gallatin Valley locals -- are currently training. Olson said one of Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba's goals was to instill peace and harmony in people around the globe.
"You're seeing a manifestation of that philosophy here at the Martial Arts Center," Olson said. "No punching. No kicking. Not me against you, but me with you, training with a glint in our eye and a smile on our faces."