Olympic Ramblings

At 66 my life found a new path…again.

I shouldn’t be surprised, as it has veered off willy-nilly countless times through the years, like a half-crazed Gila monster chasing a talented rodent over hot terrain.

So what’s different this time? Well, here’s the story.

I started training karate in 1964 at the ripe young age of 18. For the past 48 years I have at least rubbed elbows with most of the noteworthy instructors of the modern, post World War II era and spent significant time with a few of them. (I have also, of course, rubbed elbows with the dredges – but that’s another, possibly more interesting story.)

During that quest, I squeezed a pile of karate information into my little pea-sized, eager brain. For five decades, I taught at colleges and high schools, ran dojos, did push-ups, traveled the globe in search of arcane knowledge and karate history and took a more or less active part in the martial arts culture of the latter half of the 20th century.

At what the world would refer to as “retirement” age, however, I had resigned myself to kick back, work out occasionally, slow down on the push-ups, pass as much information as possible on to a few black belt students a couple of days a week during the bit of lifetime left to me, and otherwise step away from group training, like a burned-out karate hermit.

Then Ray Hughes came knocking.

Some people are just a pain in the neck.

“I am putting together a team to compete in national and international level competition and I would like you and Robin to train the kata competitors…” says he.

“No,” says I, “I’d rather be boiled in oil.”

“…since you’re so wise and talented,” he hastily added, as if he were running for president and I was a potential vote. Since I had to agree with the second part, I was being roped into agreeing with the first. (I’m not cheap, but I’m easy.) Besides, he was right. I am kind of wise, in an un-wise sort of way. The “talented” part is open for debate, but I won’t disagree.

So Robin, my sixth-degree black belt wife, (whatever possessed me to teach my wife karate in the first place?) and I discussed the stupid idea, slapped each other on the back (gently), and said “what the heck”, Friday nights are boring anyway, and I can still watch Fox News the rest of the week. Besides, we had been in one dojo or another on Fridays for most of our lives, so it kind of seemed natural – like cracked feet.

We reluctantly showed up, as scheduled, the first Friday evening, stood staring at the 25 or so eager apprentices staring back waiting for us to impart some new knowledge, thought about the impossible task ahead, and I promptly quit.

Forget it. No way. Never happen. Impossible. Waste of time. Are you serious? One of them is crying! I have to watch the news. Stuff like that.

But they are so eager, Robin says…and so nice…and so motivated…and they are not beginners.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Nice. Motivated. Cute. Oh…all right…line up, you little…!

That’s about it.

I well knew the effect karate training could have on young students. I had seen hundreds grow in strength and spirit and understanding and discipline over the years. It’s almost a cliché. It had already been instilled in this group by Sensei Ray. They already knew karate exceptionally well. They could already punch and kick and do kata. That’s why they were here. But Olympic aspiration, that’s something else.

What I wasn’t prepared for and what hooked me this time was the Olympian spirit of the kids jumbled together in front of me, eagerly preparing for their very own authentic Olympic challenge, naively oblivious to the gargantuan effort it would require, motivated by some force I couldn’t even imagine.

I really expected most of them to drop out in a couple of weeks and that Robin and I would show up occasionally to teach a kata or two. I underestimated (again) the depth of human fortitude and desire, even in kids, and the incredible drive of the people who populate Ray Hughes’ magnificent Scottsdale dojo. (Don’t start patting yourselves on the back; there are a lot of losers among you, too.)

The darn kids wouldn’t go away. I made it harder and harder and they still kept coming back. I made these aspiring Olympians jump up and down, roll on the ground, haul each other across the dojo on their backs, drop for push-ups (while thanking me for it), and they simply wouldn’t quit.

When I suggested we try extra practice on Sunday mornings, they showed up. When I suggested they come Monday and Wednesday before their regular class, they showed up there too. After a while, I actually began to take them seriously.

When they started coming home with trophies, I really began to think something unusual was afoot. I even went to a couple of tournaments just to see what was going on. How were they winning all those trophies? Were we the only school participating?

When, at one of the final competitions, the majority of winners in every category hailed from SMAC’s gaggle of acolytes, I went home and started practicing my own stuff again. When they went to the Junior Olympics and the Nationals and came back with gold and silver and bronze medals…well, that was all she wrote.

At 66 my life took a new path.

Karate spirit is one thing, but couple it with Olympian determination, time and effort, and a superior human being will emerge out of the mix. I used to watch the little girl fairies, like Olga Korbut, in the Olympics sprint across the floor and flip and turn and roll and spin around the horizontal bar and wonder where anyone found such little kids. Now I know. They are right there, in front of us, all the time.

Most people have arms and legs, hands, feet and muscles. They can be trained. You can train a monkey. But most people never become Olympic champions. Most people, even if they start, give up. It’s too hard. It takes an incredible “heart,” like a race horse…like a champion. But kids have it; we just have to give them the opportunity to realize it. They will step up and amaze, I promise. They will astound. My senior students watch them open-mouthed.

“Where did you find these kids?” they ask.

They’re right there, in front of us, all the time. They’re the same smiley little dodos who fidget around and spill ice cream on their shirts. Just give them a chance. Give them a chance to touch the greatness inside.

We don’t really care if they win. It’s nice if they do. The medal is a pretty star of accomplishment, but perseverance is learned by persevering. Besides, if you practice all your life to run in the Olympics and only place fourth, you’re still faster than about six billion people on earth.

So here I am, looking forward to a new year, planning who will learn which of the katas we have to pass on and what diabolical exercises I can conjure up to drive them away. It’s great. A purpose. A purpose driven life. Create champions. Mold young minds. Prepare future leaders. Foster greatness. Do more push-ups.

At 66 my life has found a new direction.

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