One look at the "pajamas" worn in judo, and Sarah Subko was sold on the sport at age 5.
"We were actually at gymnastics practice, and they (judo participants) were coming in, and I said, 'What's that, Mom?' " Sarah recalled. "She said, 'Judo,' and I said, 'I want to do that.' "
Her mother, Natasha Subko, nodded. "We never saw the pink leotard again after that."
Almost a decade later, Sarah has shrugged into judogi after judogi, the uniform she mistook for pajamas as a child. She has collected a box full of gold and silver medals and earned a purple belt, the highest rank for her age.
Along the way, she has flipped, thrown and pinned competitors much larger than her 5-foot-2, 116-pound frame and racked up enough competition points to be ranked No. 1 in the United States for her age and size.
In October, the 14-year-old will head to Buenos Aires to represent the United States in the Pan American Infantile Championship tournament. USA Judo, one of the sport's top national organizers, sponsors the event. Six-time national champion Charles Roche, from east Hillsborough, also will compete at the games.
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Sarah's parents said she has always been athletic. She excelled at track and volleyball at Tomlin Middle School in Plant City and played well enough in tryouts to make the volleyball team at Strawberry Crest High School, where she is a freshman.
But judo is her first love. Her dad, Robert Subko, said she practiced about 15 hours a week during the summer. She will cut back to about 10 hours now that school has started. The teenager has long been a member of the Florida School of Judo, which meets at the Campo Family Y. She also practices at T-N-T Academy of Judo in Riverview.
"She never complains about going to judo practice," Natasha Subko said.
Her instructor at the Y, Edwin Maley, said that's probably the biggest reason for Sarah's success.
"She's a natural athlete," he said. "She stayed with it, with everything kids have got going these days."
Maley, 79, has participated in judo for 63 years and has taught martial arts in the Tampa area for a half-century. He figures he has taught about 85,000 young people, a few of whom have gone to the Olympics.
"That's not why I teach," he said, adding that he believes judo provides lessons of control and discipline that benefit students throughout life. Even so, he's proud of the students that excel at competition.
"If I get someone good, it's great," Maley said.
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Sarah said she would like to qualify for the Olympics someday. She plans to major in engineering when she reaches college, but she picked out her intended school, the University of Florida, because of the judo facilities there.
The teenager said the best thing about judo is the friends she has made locally and at competitions. Her travels have included tournaments in Florida, New England, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas and Georgia.
"I have tons of friends all over the country," she said.
Natasha Subko said she has been impressed with how supportive coaches, parents and competitors are at events. If Sarah's coach can't be at a competition, an instructor from another school often will slide into the coach's chair, she said.
Although her daughter has received plenty of recognition for her athletic prowess, Natasha said she's most proud of a trophy her daughter received in July at the Junior Olympics in Irving, Texas. Saran won a silver medal for her performance. The trophy was for sportsmanship.
"It's almost better than the medal," Natasha Subko said. "It means other people think your kid's a good kid. That's the best."
Susan Green can be reached at [email protected].