Campbell spent part of his youth in an orphanage because his father was an alcoholic and his mother couldn’t hold the family together. While some people wither in an orphanage, Campbell grew self-reliant and strong through the experience.
His introduction to judo came during a summer job when he fell into a shoving match with a Japanese coworker. The wiry kid immediately threw Campbell on the floor … and made him a judo convert for life.
After military duty in Korea, Campbell continued judo training at college in California. Eventually, he moved to Japan to train with the world’s best judoists and landed a spot on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team.
The key: self-discipline. Campbell trained incessantly. He’d take on back-to-back practices, complete a session with superior players, then cross town to practice with another club or drive more than two hours to spar with someone more skilled. When Campbell lost, he’d train even harder.
His four years in Japan were the hardest. As in other sports, players often retched with the exertion, and they disregarded injuries. Workouts were so hard that Campbell would lose 10 pounds in one session.
“It was just horrendously difficult training,” says Phil Porter, head of the U.S. Judo Association. “This, I believe, is the crucial matrix of Campbell’s character.”
In the Olympics, Campbell made it to the final rounds, defeated one opponent in a lightning move that ended the match in seconds, then had his knee blow out in the next round. The injury ended Campbell’s judo career, but he took his self-discipline with him throughout life as a deputy sheriff, silversmith and politician.
— Adapted from Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, Herman J. Viola, Johnson Books.