With just two years of sumo training, Andrew Roden is going for Gold in Birmingham.
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Sumo_Dumbbell Floor Press
Credit: Andrew Roden

Two years ago, 34-year-old Alabama resident, Andrew Roden, knew nothing about the ancient sport of sumo wrestling. But this summer, he's stepping into the ring at The 2022 World Games in Birmingham.  

Roden grew up in Carrollton, Georgia, where he became a highly competitive wrestler in high school. He earned All-American honors and was the 2006 state runner up during his senior year. "Wrestling is the type of sport that no one is a natural talent," Roden told Southern Living. "You know like in basketball, there are guys that are tall and can jump high. Nobody has that natural talent in wrestling, what you get is 100% of what you earn."  He went on to compete with two nationally ranked teams while attending New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. "With it being an individual sport, you've got no one else to blame if things don't go right," he added. "I always liked that, that it was all on me, and it was my responsibility to win."

After graduating from college in 2011, Roden moved back to his family's home state of Alabama. Then in early 2020, he and a friend took a road trip that would change his life in a way he never could have predicted. "We go down to Birmingham and I see a sign that says, "Home of The World Games" and I'm like, I've never heard of that before."

Roden started researching The World Games and became fascinated with one of the 34 sports scheduled to play out on this international stage: sumo wrestling. "At first I was thinking, 'Well, that would be fun to watch', I was just thinking about being a spectator, I had been out of competition for nine years, I was not in shape and competition was the furthest thing from my mind."

THE SUMO SKILL SET

Sumo is an ancient Japanese-style of wrestling that involves a 15-foot ring made of clay and sand and two powerful men trying to topple each other outside of that circle.  The sport is steeped in rituals such as the clapping of hands to awaken the gods, stomping of feet to crush evil spirits and tossing of salt into the ring to purify it.  

As he studied Japan's national sport, Roden discovered the rules in sumo were simple. While gripping each other by the belt, wrestlers try to propel their opponent outside of the ring or force them to touch the ground with any part of their body besides the soles of their feet.  "The way I had always wrestled through high school and college, I was very physical and aggressive. And as far as athletically, I was always explosive and powerful, and those are the main tenets of what makes somebody good at sumo," explained Roden. "I saw my skill set lining up really well with the sport, so I thought, 'I think I would be good at this!'"

Sumo_North American Championships Finals
Credit: Andrew Roden

THE ROAD TO THE WORLD GAMES

When gyms started to open back up in May 2020, Roden began training and conditioning to get himself back in shape. Later that year, he signed up for his first sumo tournament run by Thomas Zabel, a former sumo wrestler and author of the book, "Sumo Skills".  Roden's first lesson was how to wear the sumo loincloth, or mawashi.  "What a lot of people don't realize is that it's not a single piece of clothing that you put on like you would put on shorts or underwear," Roden said. "It's a 20 foot by 18-inch piece of fabric and there's a specific process for folding it and tying it on." Luckily, Roden found the sumo community a very helpful and welcoming one. "So, I show up at this tournament with an unfolded mawashi and they showed me how to fold it and tie it on," said Roden. "And I ended up going 10-0 and beating two defending national champs!"

After months of traveling and training, Roden eventually landed at the 2021 North American Sumo Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada. The top three sumo wrestlers would earn a ticket to The 2022 World Games. Roden won match after match and not only secured his spot in Birmingham, but he also won the entire competition. "It was sort of surreal, it's a spine-tingling moment," he said. "I told everybody from day one that I wanted to win The World Games in 2022, so I got myself in shape, and two years later here we are!"

Regardless of the outcome, Roden said competing in The World Games is something he will never forget. "I'm in it to win it. I believe I can win it. But at the end of the day, it's the top 16 in the world and not many people ever get to have this experience."The World Games run from July 7th through July 17th in Birmingham, Alabama. But those hoping to see Roden in action will have to settle for watching the livestream on the Olympic Channel or highlights on CBS Sports. Tickets for the men's and women's sumo events have already sold out.