Sport is number one practiced martial art in world.

LOUISIANA La. When Connie Lavergne came to Lafayette two decades ago, she didn't know she would become Acadiana's first lady of judo.

"USL was just looking for someone that could teach all those odd sports ... judo, fencing, swimming along with all the regular sports," she said. "I thought it would be a good fit."

That's how the former Kentucky state judo champion came South and helped promote a program that is now recognized nationally among the sport's devotees. At the same time, she's helped make the area a hotbed for the number one practiced martial art in the world.

Consider these facts:

Last summer, 781 youths in Lafayette Parish elementary and middle schools took part in organized judo programs.

The University of Louisiana judo club annually ranks among the top collegiate units in the country, with the women's team winning its first national collegiate title in March.

That club annually hosts the Swamp Classic Open, in existence for 12 years and one of the nation's premier events.

UL also serves as site of the National Judo Training Facility, designated by the USA Judo organization, meaning that athletes, coaches and officials from across the country take part in activities at the facility.

Not bad for an organization that drew laughter in the mid-1980s when Lavergne took her fledgling group to regional competitions.

"They were a wonderful group, but I basically had no idea what I was doing," she said. "I was 23 years old and coaching a group of boys, and that was pretty much unheard of then. And there weren't many opportunities for girls at all."

A lot has changed since then, much of it through Lavergne's efforts and the establishment of a multi-level "pyramid" program that involves participants ranging from a recreational level all the way to internationally-competitive performers.

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Dan McDonald