Sumo champ Kelly Gneiting brings genuine kid joy to the dohyō.
  • Sumo champ Kelly Gneiting brings genuine kid joy to the dohyō.
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Continuing with Kelly Gneiting, 42, the reigning and four-time U.S. heavyweight sumo champion. Gneiting is 6 feet tall, weighs 400 pounds, and has a waistline that measures 5 feet. (He’ll be wrestling in L.A. on Saturday. The 2012 U.S. Sumo Open. Check usasumo.com for details).

I don’t come across a lot of people who are sumo wrestlers. There are very few to less than a few world-class sumo wrestlers born in the U.S.A., so Idaho-born and -bred Gneiting catches the eye. He’s a Mormon and completed a two-year mission in Santa Rosa, California. But, a lot of people are Mormons and have completed missions. He’s an ex-Marine. A lot of people are ex-Marines. Married, five kids, has a B.A. from University of Idaho. Okay, not so many people, but quite a few have done all that or something similar. Was a long-haul trucker, drove Idaho potatoes hither and yon. Five years of it. Gneiting has a master’s degree in geography from the University of Idaho. Starting to get a little strange here. He became a sumo wrester at the age of 29, won his first U.S. championship in 2005. Has appeared in movies and on TV, been written about on every continent, traveled to India, France, Japan, etc. for sumo matches. The author of the recently published Fat Passion: Life & Lessons from a 400-lb Marathon-ing Sumo Champ. Has run the L.A. Marathon twice and plans to swim the English Channel next September. Actively looking for a sponsor to support his newest quest: climbing Mount Everest. But, it’s the next factoid that causes everything to fall off the shelf, causes me to realize there’s too much information taken from too many unconnected places to ever be able to form a coherent storyline within the confines of a weekly column. Here’s the tipping point. Gneiting lives and works on an Indian reservation in northeastern Arizona.

What is a 400-pound Idaho white boy sumo wrestler doing on a Navajo Indian reservation?

“I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in geography, both from the University of Idaho,” Gneiting says. “Geography is divided into two categories: the art side, and the science side. Idaho has an emphasis on the science side. I know math well, and I know Microsoft Excel and databases well.”

Gneiting is a research analyst/statistician at Fort Defiance Indian Hospital. He’s worked two stints on the rez. The first from 2005 to 2007, the second from 2010 on. “I applied for the [first] job along the road. Just pulled the truck over and interviewed for the job.

“When I first got here I left my wallet at a gas station. I ran back after five or ten minutes, and it was gone. I had nothing. I had to go to my bishop just to survive. I lived out of my car for three weeks. I’ve never told my wife any of this. This is a rough area.”

Gneiting has every second Friday off, making a three-day weekend, which he uses to compete in Sumo events around the U.S. and overseas. This is not easy. Follows is his return itinerary from a sumo exhibition in nearby San Francisco.

Gneiting left his San Francisco hotel at 8:00 a.m., shuttled to SFO, flew to L.A., caught a second flight to Albuquerque, followed by a three-hour train ride. I telephoned him at this point. Gneiting says, “I’m still not home, I’m at a friend’s house in Gallup, which is 40 miles away from Fort Defiance. It’s 7:15 [p.m.]. Later tonight, I’ll drive the final 40 minutes.”

Gneiting will be in Hong Kong on October 27 and 28 for the World Sumo Championships and...this is an impossible storyline for a column, so I’ll close with this. What I remember most clearly is the end of an outdoor exhibition match. The MC asks if there are any children who want to wrestle a sumo man. A forest of tiny arms reach skyward while tiny bodies wiggle in their seats. A child is selected, comes into the sumo ring, and told to pick a wrestler.

The kids are three years old to, say, eight years old. Each child picks a sumo wrestler, one of six. The giant joins the child in the sumo ring and allows the kid to push and pull until the wrestler is “pushed” out of the ring. Sixty seconds, max. Except for Gneiting. Kids push, pull, and chase him around the ring until he takes a great fall. Gneiting makes a professional flop, sends his 400 pounds down to the mat in a giant crash. Every time, every kid. Deafening squeals and screams. Genuine kid joy.

No one else makes the effort.

Read Big Man. Part 2

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