They met in 1998 — two kids in the marching band at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who started to bond over late-night study sessions in a small section of the campus library.
Then they fell in love.
Robert Gouthro was a liberal arts guy, studying history. Lisa Capriotti was a science gal, earning her degree in chemistry.
They fell for each other during their senior year at Gettysburg, started dating in 2001 and wed in 2009.
“We really were kind of meant for each other,” Capriotti gushed. “Like two peas in a pod.”
Most of the time, spousal terms are in order when the couple defines their relationship: he is Robert, Lisa’s husband, and she is Lisa, Robert’s wife.
But the couple, who lives in Summerville, are also partners in kime no kata, a traditional form of judo with an emphasis on the self-defense applications of the sport. And when they travel around the world for judo competitions — finding themselves on the mat or in the gym — the tables turn.
“In those moments, she’s not my wife. She’s my kata partner. She’s my training partner,” Gouthro said. “In these kata, I perform the role of a bad guy. I will come out and I attack her with a knife ... when I punch at her, I punch for real.”
The format of the couple’s competitions are simple: Gouthro is graded on how realistically he attacks Capriotti, as if she were walking down the street or minding her business at home and someone came after her.
He has a small wooden knife he uses in the simulated attack, and he also attempts to punch her while he lunges. For her part, Capriotti is graded on how well she responds to defending herself, implementing the techniques she has learned from class.
It took some time for Gouthro to become comfortable attacking his wife with such reckless abandon, but the two practice their competition routine together regularly, so, in theory, Capriotti knows exactly how Gouthro is going to attack her. Certainly, though, accidents have happened.
“The most extreme (injury) was actually a couple of weeks ago. It just goes to show you, you’re always learning,” Capriotti said. “I had done a throw and he had accidentally kind of head-butted me in the nose and my nose started bleeding. ... We take care of each other enough though that we’ve never had any serious injuries. Nothing broken, no black eyes.”
Gouthro and Capriotti first picked up judo in 2008 while they were living in Washington, D.C., and were in search of an activity that would allow them to spend more time together despite their busy schedules. They each had a little bit of martial arts experience, and so together they found a club they liked in the Georgetown neighborhood of the city.
“We started in 2008 and then I took a commission in the Navy in late 2009 — so basically 2010 — and I got moved all around the country. Everywhere we went, we tried to find a place where we could do judo,” Capriotti said. “We got an opportunity to learn from a lot of people around the country, and then when I left the Navy in 2015 we knew we were going to settle in Charleston and now we are assistant instructors under the largest club in the United States Judo Association.”
Now they train year-round, and in October the couple placed seventh in the 2016 World Judo Kata Championships on the island of Malta. Gouthro and Capriotti’s finish was one point shy from earning a berth into the finals, but it was their highest finish in the event yet and was good enough to make them the best among all U.S. competitors this year.
Each of them also compete individually in judo; Capriotti won the World Veterans Judo Championships in November in Florida.
The duo will begin training again around February for 2017 competitions.
In the meantime, they teach free judo classes to military personnel and civilians at the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek, and Capriotti has also started a team at The Citadel, where she is an adjunct chemistry professor. Gouthro is hoping to start a club at Fort Dorchester Elementary, where he teaches English as a second language, some time next semester.
Their mission is to grow the sport — hoping judo does for others what it's done for them.
“Most people when you say judo, they have no idea what you’re talking about,” Gouthro said. “But it’s changed our lives and it’s changed the lives of a lot of the people we see in our judo clubs.”