November 25, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Five-year-old Sammi Reinders weighs only a little over 40 pounds, but she already has a weighty achievement under her tiny belt: ranking first in her class in judo competition at the 2014 Junior Olympics this summer. And her 9-year-old brother, Logan, competing in a much larger field, earned an impressive 9th place. Not really too surprising considering their father, Jason, is a 4th-degree black belt in both judo and Japanese jujitsu. He’s also the head instructor and owner of Sempai Judo Academy and has been studying martial arts nearly his whole life.

“I started martial arts in general when I was 5, but I didn’t start judo until I was 12. Most judo academies don’t start kids until around age 8, but I’m a firm believer—and many other clubs have come along to agree—that the earlier you start them, the better,” he says. “It teaches them discipline and leadership skills and it gets them active, fitness-wise.”

Reinders opened Sempai Judo Academy in 2007 offering a mixture of traditional Kodokan judo and competition judo instruction as well as other martial arts classes. The club is registered with USA Judo, a member organization of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and now employs five instructors besides Reinders along with two personal trainers. The club membership is made up of students of all ages—with many who’ve placed at numerous competitions from local to national-level, including 39 state champions—and attracts membership from all over the Omaha area and even across the river, Reinders says.

As a husband and father, Reinders says his business is not just about creating champions. His family-centric academy regularly includes self-defense courses (some specifically for women)
on the schedule and now even offers a program to help children deal with bullies.

“Our anti-bullying program is a two-step program. The first step is teaching them the self-confidence they need and high self-esteem, so if somebody does say something about them or something to them, they have the ability to kind of brush it off and talk to their family or other kids in the school,” Reinders explains. “The other aspect that we teach them is that we don’t agree with punching, kicking, and fighting back a bully by beating them up. But we also don’t think that a bully should be able to punch you, kick you, choke you, or hold you down. So what we teach them is that if you have no other recourse—you can’t flight or get away—then you have to defend yourself, put them into a throw and hold them down until a teacher or administrator gets there to help you. That way you use enough force to keep yourself safe but you’re not hurting anyone.”

Reinders attributes much of the success of his small family business to the fact that everyone is treated like…well, family.

“We have strong camaraderie throughout the club. We treat each other with respect, but we treat each other like siblings and family members,” he says. “It kind of builds that strong family value.
Even when parents aren’t doing a class, they’re still part of the club.”

Reinders says his children were eager early on to join in the fun. Logan started learning judo at age 5 and did so well that Reinders was willing to let little sister Sammi begin her instruction at 3. His wife, Mandi, didn’t hesitate to give her approval, either. The couple met through a judo class, after all.

“There are pros and cons with their dad being the instructor,” Reinders says. “They get all the training they want, but then again they can’t miss training, either.”

Next up for martial arts instruction will be baby Giuseppe, although having just turned eight months old in September, he will need a few more years to grow into his first gi (judo uniform). He’s already a champ, though, explains his father.

“He was four and a half months early; almost 15 ounces, 435 grams at birth,” Reinders says. “He was smaller than a beanie baby, so it was quite the challenge.”

Giuseppe’s older brother and sister will probably recruit him eventually to join them in plans they’re already making to run Sempai Judo Academy in the future, Reinders says.

“They say one day I’m going to be old and have to retire, so they’re taking over,” he says with a chuckle, adding that he would actually be pleased to see his children carry on the family business someday. “They’ll have their way.”

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