"Wow, my last test in the dojo is complete! This journey has truly been the most transformative experience of my life. I believe it has changed me and grown me as a person more than any other single event or process in my life. In more ways than I could possibly innumerate, it has been worth all of the hard work, trials, tears, stress and sweat, 1000 times over.
Deciding what to write about in this essay was extremely difficult for me: As the owner of the dojo, the wife of the sensei, the one student who has seen every rank test that the dojo has had and watched every single individual student grow and progress from white belt, as the administrator, and as a student and a sensei myself, and now the very first red belt in the dojo... there was a lot I could have written about. Seeing the way the dojo has nurtured and grown both myself and my husband, and watching the ways it's changed us and broken our hearts sometimes, there was plenty running through my mind.
Ultimately I decided to focus on my training, my journey, in the hopes that future red belts would be informed by the path I've taken, but mostly in hopes that white belts, yellow belts, blue belts, purple belts would read this and see that it doesn't take a special type of person to succeed at anything in martial arts or in life... it only takes making one simple choice, and making that choice every single day.
When I was thinking back on my training for red belt, I first thought how it began in January when I implemented my schedule of workouts, classes, and training sessions. So much has happened between my test for Brown II and now, many ups and downs, many lessons, many friendships and many struggles.
But then I thought back further. Back to purple belt, to yellow belt, to white belt. I thought about when we opened the dojo. Even at the time that we opened in August of 2005, I didn't have any intention of training. I was working 40 hours a week at a day job, plus nights and weekends waiting tables, and the rest of my time I spent running the dojo. I was busy, stressed, tired, adjusting to lots and lots of changes in my life - not to mention the fact that I was scared of lots of things. Having earned a black belt at the age of 11 from a sub-par school in Pittsburgh, I felt like continuing my martial arts training was a lose-lose. If I do great, it's only because I'm already a black belt. If I stink, it's worse because I had prior training as a kid and I should be better. I also didn't know how it would work with me training and also running the school, and having my husband as a sensei. There were a lot of reasons for me never to step onto the mats in the first place. But... I felt moved to start the journey. And knowing nothing about what the journey was going to hold for me, I tied on a size 2 white belt and took my first class.
And then I met Wendie.
We trained together with our class, sending frantic emails back and forth, fretting about our yellow belt test, meeting late at the dojo to practice kihon drills. My knees started to hurt, and would continue to hurt very badly for months as my body adjusted to this new type of activity. In November of 2005, I tested with about 10 or 12 adults for yellow belt. After training for all of two months together, we were one big team.
At yellow belt I ran into another hurdle. As it turns out, I had an extreme fear of sparring. I would drive home after sparring class crying in the car the whole way. One class I missed because I couldn't stop crying in the bathroom long enough to get my gear on. Every sparring class was like a root canal that lasted for an hour. I hated every moment of it. I wanted to quit. I couldn't imagine having to do this for 6 more years, every belt level, every rank test. To me, there could hardly be anything worse. I had a decision to make - quit now before people began to expect me to go all the way, or stick it out and sort through my issues. Even though every moment of it was excruciating to me, I knew this was something that was going to make me stronger. So I sorted it out. Not all at once, but day by day, moment by moment, until I could understand my fear, and then I could tolerate it, then sometimes I could even forget it for a minute or two. It would be years before I could spar without hating it, but the battle was worth it. Just never quit.
At blue belt I tested with the same group of adults. A few had quit, but most of us were still there. Sensei Evan came to our rank test. I didn't appreciate his uniqueness yet at that time, but would grow to love the special ritual of test time and Sensei Evan summers.
In blue belt, my kneesfinally started feeling better. Although I still hated sparring, I felt like I could at least spar without risking crying at any moment. I felt like I might be settling into a groove. When we tested for purple belt, the majority of my original group tested with me. Wendie, Jarod, and Tim in particular gave me strength. By the time I reached purple belt, I had been losing at tournaments to Wendie and Jarod since white belt. My careful placement of moves in just the right spots, with decent stances and crisp movements wasn't enough. Their intensity, kiais, power and strength, eye contact and effort all overwhelmed me. I was frustrated that doing it correctly wasn't good enough. I began to realize that merely correct, isn't correct. I watched Wendie intently. I didn't want to lose one bit of precision, one bit of who I was as a martial artist - I only wanted to increase it. I wanted to add some "Wendie" to my "Kristina." So at purple belt, I started to pour some fire into my training. Little by little, splashing the water from the jar for the first time.
Very few people survived purple belt with me. It was just Wendie and I, and Seth moved up to test with us. No longer a squishy little 10-year-old testing with the kids, he was a teenager and ready to hang with the adults. Wendie by now was more than just a friend, she was a training partner that I knew I'd have for life, karate or no karate. We'd been through so much together already, survived through purple belt while everyone else fell away. They all had legitimate excuses for quitting. There are thousands and millions of excuses that we all have if we want them.
But the few good reasons for NOT giving up outweigh all of that.
Training for brown belt was tough, physically and mentally. I dealt with increasing feelings of inadequacy in the face of the randomness of self defense and the unknown. The physical demands grew by leaps and bounds at this stage in my training. The test for brown belt was physically the most difficult thing I'd ever done. And again, it was Wendie, Seth and me, standing there with Sensei Brian and Sensei Evan. One more battle won.
Brown belt was difficult and different - the dojo was growing, we were running into seemingly unresolvable scheduling problems, the workload was becoming overwhelming. After how Olympic the brown belt test had been, I knew brown II wasn't going to be any cake walk. I trained for months in CrossFit and worked out with Wendie, and stacked classes, stacked katas, stacked workouts... did everything I could to be ready. The Brown II test was grueling but shorter because we were SO prepared. But it was also a little bit weird. Seth wasn't there, and neither was Evan. This time, just me, Wendie, Brian and the puke bucket. Once again, my team had gotten painfully smaller.
Brown II, in my mind, was beginner's training for black belt. Eight new forms, jiu jitsu, sparring, massive kihon drills, plus 19 lower belt forms and their mirror images, all the old self defenses and everything was piling up at this belt, and it was understood that the old way of doing it was no longer sufficient. Now, Heian Shodan needed to be something special, something ground-shaking. High #3 had a whole new meaning. My open forms had new significance.
During my brown II training for red belt, things changed even more. About 6 months into my training, the dojo went on a waiting list that we still are operating on. The schedule, the demands of parents, the students, the events, the tournament competition and travel, the economy, the process of getting so MANY many students through to the next belt level in a reasonable amount of time while continuing to motivate them in an increasingly unmotivating world, and keep our standards high at the same time - it was and is all overwhelming. While I was drowning in dojo work, unable to focus, Wendie was feeling the same thing at her job. Major changes in the structure of her work (as well as her heavy training for her last year in the under-40 division in motocross racing) caused unavoidable stress and upheaval that would not allow her to focus on training for our rest belt test that was supposed to be in June. I was training more than Wendie, but clearly not ready for a June rank test either.
Finally, one day, Wendie came into my office and sat down and told me she was not going to test this summer. Wendie, my training partner who had meant everything to me for years, and who had been the ONE constant, the only reliable strength from day 1, who had sat next to me in seiza at every single bushido kai rank test I'd ever taken... Wendie, had decided to postpone her testing.
The revelation threw me into turmoil. I had still been ramping up to take the test, training in classes 4 or 5 days a week, doing workouts at home, and dieting for 2 months. I was so busy, I knew my mind wasn't fully focused yet, but I was still moving in the right direction. If I waited, I risked missing my peak and not being ready in the fall either, typically the dojo's busiest time of the year. My fear was that the dojo would be even busier than the year before, as we have never gotten slower at the dojo, and then I would either hold Wendie back or miss testing with her anyway. If that happened, and we waited until December to test for red belt, we would also miss any chance of testing for black belt in 2011. But, if I took the red belt test in the summer anyway by myself, I would be the only one. I would be missing so much of what made me a second degree brown belt and a martial artist, so much more than what other people could possibly understand. How could I possibly choose between those two options?
I lost sleep for several weeks, went back in forth in my mind, sure that I had decided to test by myself, and then sure that I had decided to wait for Wendie no matter what. One day, talking about it with Brian, I asked, "How could I possibly test for red belt by myself? Without Wendie? After all this time?" Brian said, "It never mattered. It's only you anyway."
Of course, sensei is right. It's only me. It's only Wendie. It's only you. It's only each of us by ourselves. At this test, every day in class, every time when we're sitting at home not wanting to go to the dojo, every time we're sitting at the computer engrossed in work, every time we get up and go to class anyway.... and especially at the black belt test. On the mountain, there are no friends and training partners. There are no family members and husbands and wives. There are no classmates. It is you, sensei and the mountain. No matter how many other people are there, it's only that.
And I realized that all this time, at white belt, purple belt, brown belt, in the bathroom crying into my sparring gear... it's always been just me, sensei and my mountain.
To everyone who trains at this dojo and tests for red belt after me, to every 6-year-old and 52-year-old testing for yellow belt, to every teenage purple II student, to every parent who wonders if their kid has what it takes to make it, I want to tell you this. On this journey, nothing will help you more than the friendships and bonds that you make with classmates and senseis. But nothing, nothing at all, no person, or training tool, or motivational trick, nothing at all will be more important than the one decision that ONLY you can make. You'll make that decision not just when you're standing tall on top of the mountain, or when everyone is clapping for you at a tournament - mostly you'll make this decision when you're struggling in class, when you don't feel good enough, when you feel like staying at home or doing something else instead of training, when you don't know anyone in your new karate class, when you are recovering from an injury, when you're being lazy. This decision is one that no one else can make for you, but it is the one thing that will make you a black belt, inside and out.
It is, simply, thedecision to never, ever quit."