BUCKHANNON – “You can be a girl and still be fierce.”
Fourteen-year-old Karmen Wolverton counts that knowledge as of the key lessons she’s learned since she embarked on a journey about five years ago in the art of self-defense through the Buckhannon Academy of Karate at Stockert Youth & Community Center.
Under the watchful eye of sixth-degree black belt karate teacher Sensei Larry Carter, Karmen and 16-year-old Requel Richards say they’ve flourished not only physically but interpersonally and psychologically as well.
The two teens recently successfully passed their tests for the ‘next belt up’ – Karmen for her first-degree brown belt and Requel for her purple belt – on a chilly Saturday in February. February 13, to be exact. Karmen knows because she always experiences butterflies before testing for the next belt.
While Karmen still gets “goosebumps” before a test, she is aware of how much she’s been transformed by the art of self-defense.
“I think I’m a completely different than I was when I first started, not only because of the maturity level, but because it helps you grow as a person, too,” she said.
The two teens call Carter ‘sensei,’ which means ‘teacher’ in English, but in Japanese, Chinese and Korean and other Asian languages, translates to “the one who came before.”
Karmen, who started learning to practice karate, the Japanese art of self-defense, when she was age nine going on 10, said she feels like a completely different person from the somewhat meeker version of herself.
“It gave me confidence,” Karmen said. “I just liked it because it taught self-discipline and how to go through life. It teaches you life lessons, so when you’re out in the world, you can go back to your karate methods, and say, ‘oh, that’s what I should do in life.’ I like teaching, too, because I like teaching people what I like to do and about the things I’m interested in.”
Karmen teaches in SYCC’s recently launched Tiny Ninjas program for children ages 5-7 who want to learn some self-defense basics, and Requel is a karate teacher-in-training. Requel actually selected martial arts over dancing and cheering on sports teams about four-year-a-half years ago, and a love of karate runs in the family. Requel’s aunt, Dawn Webb, is a second-degree black belt.
“It kind of broke her mother’s heart,” Carter said, “because her mom wanted her to be a cheerleader and a ballerina.”
And while physical agility, technique, discipline and routine work are all critical skills in both karate on the one hand and dancing, tumbling and cheering on the other, Requel said karate had something to offer that the other activities didn’t: pride in her ability to defend herself.
“If you in ballet or baton, you’re getting the routine work, but the difference is that here, you’re also getting the self-defense work, whereas there, you’re not,” Requel said.
Buckhannon Academy of Karate classes take place Mondays and Tuesdays at SYCC, and are offered to people “from seven to 107,” Carter said. Fourteen-year-old Karmen and 16-year-old Requel practice right along with people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, and Carter himself is 73.
“I don’t care what age you are, if you give me everything you’ve got, if you participate, and you give me 100 percent of your attention and your time, and work as hard as you can, there’s no reason you can’t progress and earn a black belt,” Carter said. “I don’t care if you’re 50 or 60 or 70 because I’m 73.”
About 15 people are currently enrolled in the Buckhannon Academy of Karate, but Carter is always ready to welcome more. In this dojo – or school of training – Carter has promoted 10 people to black belt, and tests people when he feels they’re up to the challenger, either every six months or once a year.
“Usually, you have to wait a year before I test you for your next belt, but if someone shows exceptional aptitude – because I run tests every six months, just not the same people – I will test in six months if they’re really giving me everything they’ve got, and they’re learning everything they could possibly do,” he said. “These girls both have tested at a six-month interval at least once.”
Requel and Karmen both said testing for their yellow belts – their first official assessment – was the most nerve-wracking, but they’ve grown more self-assured as they’ve progressed.
“During the test, it pushes you to your limit, and it makes you stronger, so when something in life tests you, you want to be stronger because that’s how you grow as a person,” Karmen said. “You can be a girl and still be fierce. [Karate] definitely keeps your brain sharp because you have to learn a lot and remember a lot, and because we fight, it’s very physical, so you get lots of workouts doing that.”
“The great part is, when you’re fighting different people, you have to fight harder if someone’s older – not like, a six-year-old – you have to use more of your body weight and your muscles,” she added.
Karmen has two more brown belts to earn before she’ll be ready to test for her first-degree black belt, while Requel’s next step up will be testing for her first-degree brown belt, which is one step above a purple belt, Carter explained. The two teens say appreciate Carter as a teacher and look to him as a guide and parental figure when they’re struggling with their martial arts practice.
Carter says he’ll keep earning higher degrees of black belts alongside his pupils for as long as possible.
“I will go as high as I possibly can as long as I am mentally and physically able to teach karate, and I’m hoping 10 years from now or 15 years from now, I can still be down there doing the things I’m doing today,” he said.
Requel and Karmen are exceptional young women, Carter added.
“I will put these girls in the ring with me, and I will fight them, and I will fight them hard, so not only do they know how to kick, they know how to strike, they know how to block, they know good movement, but they know how to take a take a kick, they know how to take a punch, which is a whole lot of what we teach in karate.”
While Karmen teaches some of the Tiny Ninjas, Requel is working her way up to becoming an instructor for younger or less advanced students, too.
To learn more about the Buckhannon Academy of Karate, visit SYCC’s program website here.