Started training in March 2007, age 8. Tested for black belt July 2015, age 16.
Black Belt Speech:
There is so much I want to say, but I feel like nothing can accurately sum up
this experience. It feels impossible for me to put these past few months into words,
nonetheless write something that makes any sense whatsoever. After all, it’s hard to
write a whole essay about something you’re not really supposed to talk about. Its
difficult because of how tedious and extreme this process has been, but also
because it still feels so surreal to me. Some mornings I wake up and I simply can’t
believe that I, we, actually made it through this process. That our six, seven, eight
years of training have paid off. My feelings about this being, on one sense, over,
vary from extremely relieved to nostalgic and very sad. Part of me still can’t grasp
it; I have frequent dreams about a surprise fifth out test or something like that.
Although I cannot share the exact details of these experiences, I can do my
best to share what has been the most valuable to me; what has come out of these
challenges, how it has opened my eyes to what my potential could be, and how it
has deeply affected me as a person.
My journey began back in 2007, when I, as an eight year old second grader,saw a flyer for an after school karate program. That day I came home from school and begged my parents to let me start. Although I had a fair share of enthusiasm for karate, and wouldn’t stop doing knife hands and front kicks around the house, it was a different story at the dojo. Me, being quite shy, never really talked to Sensei,
except to say ‘yes Sensei’ or ‘no Sensei’, for at least a solid year. Not to mention, every time I would kiai, I would cover my mouth and look around to make sure I wasn’t being too loud, even though my kiai pretty much sounded like a hamster’ssqueak.
When I first heard about the black belt test, I had been training for a little under a year, and since I’d taken a couple rank tests I naturally became curious as to what the black belt test held. When Kristina told me and a group of a few other curious blue belts that there were not one but four tests, and that they were outside, the last one on a mountain, I honestly didn’t believe her at first. I must have driven
her crazy that night at the dojo with my incessant questions as i tried to understand. Wait, so like a mountain? An actual mountain? But do you really do the test on a mountain???? How big is the mountain???? Do you wear your gi outside? Doesn’t it get dirty?- you get the point. At that point I categorized the idea of black belt as something for the distant future that couldn’t fathom ever doing myself. I assumed
that by the time I tested, I would be a big, strong, fearless sixteen year old (which was practically thirty in my mind) who would be able to face whatever was in front of me. Obviously, that wasn’t quite reality. When I was asked to test, I was a stressed out and overwhelmed teenager with probably many more fears than I had as an eight year old. Although at that point I had ben training for more than half my
life, I still vividly remember thinking how shockingly and unacceptably fast this had all happened. I had contemplated this exact scenario of being asked to test so many times over the past eight years, but I was absolutely unprepared for the moment of realization that this was my opportunity, this chance was mine, right here and right now. Who I was then certainly did not align with the expectations I had set for myself for when I would be asked to test. At that point, I didn’t know that this doubt would only become more and more magnified as this process continued.
As time rolled on and the days until the first out trip became fewer, I faced my fair share of obstacles, both from the outside world and internal struggles, from the products of my own fear and self doubt. I remember having countless discussions throughout these four months with my fellow testers about why exactly we were doing this. Our answers, well at least mine, were shaky and a bit unclear at first; all we knew was that something was driving us to do this, to do what we held as the impossible for ourselves. In the beginning, I always fell back on the logic of “well, I’ve been doing this for eight years, so I have to finish it”. Yet really, that’s not an answer. Just because I’d done it for so long didn’t mean I couldn’t have quit. I could have walked away whenever I wanted and move on with my life. I soon realized this wasn’t enough to drive me forward. A few weeks after being asked to test, after the pure excitement and giddy nervousness began to wear off, panic and fear began to set in. We were training hard, almost daily, and there began to be moments when I would lack faith in my ability to continue in the face of pain and difficulty, both physical and mental. At that time, I had to dig a bit deeper to find an answer for myself- a reason to not quit at times like this. I came to the
conclusion that I wanted to discover my full potential, and this was the perfect opportunity. I would be cheating if I didn’t commit myself fully, or if I went at this halfheartedly. Also the thought of giving up in front of Sensei and the endless push ups he would probably make us all do was a pretty good motivator. In fact, as a group we made several agreements not to quit for this reason alone. Another piece I have slowly learned was that my strength would not come from moments of success and victory, nor would these few months appear as a steady and constant path upward. Unfortunately, the effort I put in did not guarantee the result I was striving for, at least not in the time frame or way that I had imagined. For example, getting the stomach flu for the entire week before the first out trip wasn’t quite on my agenda, and left me feeling a little less than
confident. I had made the mistake of predicting the future and how this should go, rather than focusing on having myself together as I went into the unknown. But these obstacles are what built me up. Pushing past chaos and things that seemed like disasters are what gave me the courage to face the mountain eventually. I wish I could say the fear was lessened as the time went on, but my anxiety now stemmed from a mix of the unknown of what was ahead, as well as knowing just how brutal these tests could be, and that it was only going to get more intense and demanding from here. Again I felt my answer, the reason I was doing this, was becoming insufficient. Yes, I wanted to discover my full potential, by why again? Why was I spending all my free time training? While my friends were shopping and floating the river, we were doing katas on precarious hillsides and getting really funny looks from hikers who were clearly concerned with our mental health. Who on earth does stuff like this? It was surprisingly easy for this lifestyle to seem normal to us, but it’s easy to get a reality check from the outside world that it is definitely not normal. Like the facial expression of those poor runners who came across Hunter when he was doing the 3 sectional staff form in the middle of the trail near a golf course. Or better yet the mailman who will probably be switching routes after stumbling across me doing the kama form in my yard.
For a month or two, I could not really find words to express what was driving me forward, why I wanted this, but I did, and I kept going. It was not smooth, filled with more bumps in this already rocky road, well, more like roller coaster. It was certainly not about months of intense training that lead to becoming invincible and admirable, but it did lead to me becoming slowly more aware that I was in charge of the limits I set for myself and what I was capable of. There were proud moments, but at least ten times as many not so proud ones, like during the third out trip when Seth had to ask me if I could count to 10, as I had apparently lost my ability; or when my legs collapsed over and over while doing katas. This is not not full of proud moments, in fact I would never describe this process as in any way glamorous, though it is by far the most incredible journey I have committed myself to.
It’s funny how these basic codes we’ve been repeating since white belt contain simplified versions of all we really needed to get through this. Knowledge in the mind, strength in the body, courage and honesty in the heart. What does karate teach us about? Ourselves. In fact they kind of sum up the point of my entire essay, but I didn’t realize these were what I was learning, where this journey was taking me, until later.
Before the test, during the second to last class I took, I recall looking at the wall, (while Ben was making us hold horse stance) but anyway, I remember looking at the black belt, and having it hit me that if we passed this test, we would physically be wearing black belts in less than a week. That our pictures would be on the wall in the office, next to so many incredible people. It occurred to me that I had genuinely forgotten about these details, which had admittedly been motivating factors for me throughout all of my time at the dojo. But I think it was very
important that I forgot about these aesthetics, because this is not about a belt around your waist, it is about you as an individual and how you want to live your life. Because that’s the thing, above all else, this test offers honesty. It showed me, and I believe anyone who has done it, a brutally honest reflection, of yourself, fears, insecurities, and weaknesses, included. It’s inevitable that they will all surface at one point or another, whether you are ready or not. And I don not believe that this is about becoming or even striving to be a perfect person, but by knowing
these weaknesses, and the strengths I have acquired, this journey has allowed me to live as the most complete version of myself, someone who represents these principles to the best of my ability. This wasn’t about how many times I felt defeated, how much didn’t go to plan. Strength and growth came for me from walking into the unknown, having all the fear and doubt and in the world, enduring more than I believed I had the capacity to, but with the resolve to let myself leave that comfort zone, to break down the walls I set for myself, and allowing myself to
This was when I had my final answer to that question that had been posed what felt like ages ago. Life is already so difficult, why put yourself through this? Why did I want this so badly? But after going though this, I have learned so much that I can carry with me to tackle the ever present curve balls that life throws, because there is a never ending supply of mountains- and this taught me a little bit about climbing them.
Although this process was certainly about myself, I can say with sincerity there is no way I could have ever done it alone. It is very difficult for me to say all of my thank-yous, because I have so much gratitude for so many people, and I do no think a few simple words can do this justice. That being said, I will do my best to express how thankful I am to this entire dojo, Sensei and Kristina, my parents, my training partners, and everyone who has helped me get here. Its funny, I really don’t think the four of us could be any different, but I think that because of this, we constantly gave each other new perspectives and a new sense of bravery. I cannot tell you how many times I would have given up, if I was in this all by myself. Hunter, your no nonsense and very intense attitude towards this helped me so many times, and you constantly reminded me how important it was to never give up on myself, and Jarod, your constant will to keep training motivated me so much. Galen, you always had a was of breaking the tension when we started freaking out too much by doing really stupid things, like rolling up your gi pants so they looked like a kilt while we were training, as well as being pretty much unstoppable. I would have never guessed this a year ago, but having gone through all of this craziness together, all three of you have become like my brothers.
I also want to thank all of the black belts who had gone before us, because even though you guys seemed pretty terrifying and like you were enjoying this just a little too much, it is so meaningful that you were there for us, devoting your time and effort to help us reach this goal, knowing exactly how difficult it is. I am especially thankful to Cameron, Dylan, Grant and Evan for going out of your way to push us and encourage us, by taking us out for brutal training sessions, giving us countless words of advice, letting us know that this was possible, and for all of your friendship as well.
Sometimes it absolutely blows my mind to think that I have pretty much grown up at the dojo. I can truthfully say that I have no idea where I would be or who I would be without this community. Through these past eight years I have had so many friendships, constant opportunities to grow as a martial artist and a person, and the chance to help others. I am so so thankful to all my friends here, and to all the lovely people who have supported me, even if it was simply through a simple congratulations or word of encouragement, you have no idea how much I appreciate it. As for Sensei and Kristina, you guys have been here through all of my struggles and successes, and offered me endless chances to grow and learn through martial arts. Obviously, none of this would be possible without your dojo, and I am so humbled and honored to have been able to take this journey, and by the fact that you both believed in me when I did not believe in myself. You are both such amazing role models, mentors and people, and you inspire me daily to put my full effort into everything I do.
But above all, I owe my success to my wonderful parents who had my back every step of the way through this, in so many different ways, whether it was giving me gas money to drive out to who knows where to train, or the emotional support and the constant belief in me, tolerating me as I hobbled between the kitchen and the couch for about a week after the test, as well as paying my tuition and driving me to the dojo for eight years, four to five times a week. You have both shown me so many incredible acts of generosity. I realize now that its not easy to watch your kid train to the point of exhaustion for months on end, and to let me literally risk my life, not even knowing where I was. What you did was so selfless, and I am blown away by how lucky I was to be able to have this experience. This is all I have to say for now, and I hope that I was able to share a little bit of what I have learned, and convey how grateful I am to everyone.