By Marty Farmer
For most of us, our knowledge of karate may range as far as watching the Karate Kid movies (new and old) or Bruce Lee films. As quasi-practitioners, perhaps some of us have "simulated" a fight as kids just for kicks. And assuredly, anyone over 35 has probably attempted at one time or another an ill-fated attempt of Daniel Larusso's iconic Crane Kick from the original Karate Kid. In another scene from the 1984 classic, Mr. Miyagi asks Daniel-san about his karate background by querying "learn from book?" Larusso replies, "Yeah, that and a few months at the YMCA in Newark where I lived."
With all due respect to Newark, over 170 students of varying skill levels and ages have enjoyed karate considerably closer to home through the Park District of Oak Park's program which has been in existence over 15 years.
The karate program has flourished, in part, due to a successful partnership between the park districtand the Illinois Shotokan Karate Clubs (ISKC),which serves a great variety of karate students throughout Chicagoland.
Other martial arts programs offered by the park district include tae kwon do, aikido, martial arts (kids ages 6-14) and womens kickboxing.
"We offer [karate] classes Monday and Thursday year-round at the Fox Center," said Diane Stanke, the park district's director of marketing and customer service. "The age range for the program is participants as young as four years old up to adults in their 70s. In addition to age-specific classes, we offer a parent/child karate class. The karate program is by far the most popular martial arts program we offer."
A new karate session is slated to begin on September 5 with spaces available according to Stanke.
Part of the appeal around the karate program is how it benefits so many people in assorted ways.
"There's varying degrees of involvement," said Brian Mertel, an ISKC sensei who teaches Shotokan, a Japanese style of karate, through the park district program. "Some people have been involved with karate [here] for 15 years and they don't compete but just enjoy practicing and learning the different techniques. With young kids, karate helps them work on some basic motor skills and learn how to interact with others. Some students study karate for discipline and self-defense. We have others in the program who enjoy it for the sporting and competitive aspects. They compete at various levels nationally and internationally."
Like Mertel, John DiPasquale is an Illinois Shotokan Karate Club instructor who teaches classes at the park district. He is a four-time national champion. Ed Brian is another sensei who works with the park district teaching classes on Thursday.
Under the expert instruction of DiPasquale and Mertel, a few Oak Parkers have done their hometown dojo particularly proud. Michael Watts, 18, and Ellora Jaggi, 15, made the USA Junior National team this summer.Watts and Jaggi led an contingent of nine Oak Park karate students who competed at the US Karate National in South Carolina in mid-July. Several students earned medals.
Watts, who has qualified for the prestigious squad three times, will be competing in a tournament in Liverpool, England and then in Guadalajara, Spain later this fall. An OPRF graduate this past spring, Watts will also attend the University of Iowa this fall.
"The international competitions are awesome," said Watts, a 12-year member of the park district karate program. "It's a new experience every time and I get to see different cultures. Sensei Mertel has helped me so much achieve my goals. I don't know where I would be in terms of karate without him."
Jaggi will represent the United States at a competition in Medellin, Colombia.
The Illinois Shotokan Karate Clubs competed at the USA Karate Nationals in Greenville, SC., with 158 students overall highlighted by the aforementioned Oak Park karate competitors hoping to earn a national title.
Watts, 18, earned a silver medal in the kumite finals of the 18-34 Men's Elite Division. He also took the gold medal in his 18-20-year-old division which qualified him for several international championship events.
Jaggi took second in her division.
"High end performance really comes down to consistency," Mertel said. "There are so many people with talent, but it's not all done overnight. It takes commitment with a lot of training and [then] the experience really pays off.
"Michael and Ellora are starting to realize the benefits of their dedication," he added. "It's fulfilling for me to see them see know that all the hours of waking up early and working hard are really starting to pay off."
Other karate students have excelled as well through the park district's program. Tyler Swanson and Mateos Matigian (currently a student at Notre Dame) have been on the USA Junior National team. Carly Swanson and Allison Watts, who are 11 and 13 respectively, are other up and coming performers in the park district's talented pipeline of karate students.
Mertel carries quite a karate resume himself including the following accolades: eight-time gold medalist in the Men's Sr. Kumite Division in the US Nationals along with gold medals at the 2005 Shotokan World Championships and the 2009 Pan American Championships.
Retired from competition, the 3rd degree black belt relishes the opportunity to coach not only exemplary students like Watts and Jaggi but any student within the dojo.
"I find Oak Park is a very diverse area which is great for our karate students particularly the kids," Mertel said. "Competition is nice, but I just really want to promote the interactions and relationships built between our students, and even the parents of our students who come by."
Traveling abroad as a karate competitor for so many years, Mertel gained an international yet universal perspective on people.
"People are fundamentally the same everywhere," he said. "People were nice to me wherever I went around the world. I learned to not judge people. As an instructor, I appreciate the position I'm in to help my students become better individuals. Karate has always felt like the right fit for me."
As an instructor as well as a competitor, Watts hopes the program's number of students (170) continues its upward trend.
"I think it's a great sport because you can ease into it," Watts said. "It's not like some other sports where you might have to be technically proficient in that sport right away. You can learn karate at your own pace and meet a lot of interesting people."