Birch Bay man, 74, lives life with a kick

Published on Thu, May 19, 2011 by Tara Nelson

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National judo champion and third-degree black belt Ralph Bajema, r., of Birch Bay, stands with Hungarian world judo champion Ando Paposi-Jobb.

When Birch Bay resident Ralph Bajema needs to muster the strength to tackle a problem in life, one might imagine him taking a deep breath and letting out a loud “Haaah!”

At least that’s one of several live demonstrations he recently gave that included a drop-kick illustrating the proper way to fall.
“A lot of people my age, if they fell like that, they would break their hip or elbow,” he said, picking himself off the ground without showing the slightest sign of fatigue. “That’s because untrained people tend to fall on the bony parts of their body. But in judo, we practice falling on the fleshy parts.”

Bajema began practicing judo at the age of 16. The sport is a combatitive style of martial art that focuses on using an opponent’s force against them and relies on what Bajema calls “intrinsic” energy rather than muscle strength or brute force.

“As the body begins to age – usually in your 30s – your outer muscular system starts to decline,” he said. “Because of this, judo focuses on developing instrinsic energy, or the internal strength of the mind and spirit. It also involves a lot of deep breathing, balance and centeredness.”

Bajema, a high school wrestler, had been training at the Bellingham YMCA when he met Katsura Masa, a judo player from Toyohashi, Japan, who was visiting Bellingham for a work assignment.

“He got me interested in the sport and I just never quit,” Bajema said.

Although Bajema has practiced judo for most of his life, he said it was only during the last 10 years – in his mid 60s – that he began competing.

He now competes an average of three times a year, with his wife, Nila, accompanying him in his travels. The two use the competitions as a basis for their vacations and often stay in those areas for several extra days.

His most recent competition was in Orlando, Florida, where he earned the bronze medal for his 70-74 age division at 73 kilograms, or 160 pounds.

And in 2003, he earned a silver medal while competing against Haromi Noguchi, a world champion, at the sport’s world headquarters in Japan.

“That was my most memorable moment,” he said. “I scored a half point against him – had it been one point, I would have won.”
Bajema said he spent most of his life operating a large furniture store in the Bellingham area and helped his stepson start Wilson Furniture near Ferndale. He now works as a part-time employee about six hours a week.

In order to stay in shape in retirement, he said he works out two to three times per week for two hours and moderately watches his diet.

“I don’t pay too much attention to diet, but I do try to avoid excess salt and deep-fried foods,” he said.

He said with the exception of a broken ankle, he has not sustained any severe injuries from practicing judo and said his doctor finds him in “exceptional” health.

“He encourages it, actually,” he said.