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“Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless when facing them”  -Rabindranath Tagore


                I’ve been on many adventures in my life, but few compare to the journey towards black belt excellence.  It has had highs and lows and all of the fun, excitement, challenges, setbacks, successes and failures that come along with any good adventure.  The journey included a large cast of remarkable characters that added to the process, each in their own unique way.  At times the path was clear and the going was easy and at other times the obstacles felt unsurmountable and I was unsure wether or not I could or should continue.  Personally I have evolved so much along the way that it feels like looking back on someone else’s story, but that’s what any worthwhile adventure does.  It changes you, for better or worse you’re never the same as when you began.  This is my black belt story.


                It was 2019 and after spending a couple of years at the dojo with my kids I decided it was time for me to get in on the fun.  I remember being pretty nervous my first class, but everyone was very welcoming.  Looking back I think they were just glad to have some fresh meat.  The class proceeded to warm up with some knee tag.  That was my first time meeting Sensei Peter.  I foolishly thought “I should take it easy on the old guy”. On my first attempt I got nice and low, went in for the knee and was promptly smacked in the face.  He’ll tell you it was a block, but that old man was alpha dogging me.  What a welcome!


                It’s hard now to remember what kept me coming back for more in those early days.  Was it the feeling of ineptitude, getting tossed around by more advanced students, the intimacy of sharing sweat with strangers, the sprains and bruises?  Probably none of the above,  but I was immediately struck by a couple of things besides Sensei Peter’s fist.  First being that people capable of great violence are equally capable of great kindness.  I am grateful for their patience and support along the way.  Second is the growth that comes from doing difficult and uncomfortable things.  While struggle in life is inevitable we rarely get the opportunity to choose our obstacles.  Each time you choose to get on the mat, you are choosing to struggle.  Sometimes my struggle was getting my other responsibilities handled to be on the mat, sometimes it was just keeping up with the class, or remembering a form.  Sometimes it was an overzealous partner trying to rip my arm off.  Regardless of what the challenges were they all added to my growth and not just on the mat.  I wanted more.  Alas fate had other plans.


                When the dojo was forced to close their doors I was too busy trying to keep my own world in one piece to keep training.  I will say the fact that they were able to keep so many students engaged during that time speaks volumes about their passion and dedication.  Once groups started meeting in person again I was happy to grab a pool noodle and resume my training.  While it was far from ideal it was great to be back.  As things progressed so did I.  It began to feel like I was actually getting somewhere.  Again fate had other plans.


                This time it came in the form of a fractured foot.  What should have been a minor setback, made a major impact on my life.  Due to the injury and other difficult things life was throwing at me I was totally overwhelmed, it felt as if I’d become separated from who I was.  What was supposed to be six weeks in a boot became a six month battle with depression.  A first for me, and I hope you have no idea what I’m talking about when I say there’s few worse places to be trapped than your own head.  However helpless I felt I knew I couldn’t stop.  I couldn’t stop karate, couldn’t stop being there for the people that needed me and couldn’t stop challenging myself.  Among the work I did to pull myself out I decided that even though I hadn’t been on the mat in six months and was a long way off from a black belt I was going to start boot camp.  Obviously it was only in my mind and I was alone in the endeavor, but telling myself that story provided just enough motivation to get back on the mat and start conditioning on my own.  It was slow at first and challenging, but I stayed consistent and eventually made my way back to where I was. Then I kept going.


                One of the things I love about learning kempo, is that it can not be faked.  Sure in practice you can improvise, but when it comes to seven claws or combination twelve or statue of the crane, you either know it or you don’t.  It’s the dedication to the details that disciplines the mind and the execution that trains the body, but how do you go about strengthening the spirit?  I believe it’s the challenges that we overcome either on the mat, in our lives, or in our own heads.  When I finally became eligible to actually enter boot camp I declined, for various reasons, but mostly because I wasn’t ready.  Perhaps I could have bumbled my way through, but to me that would have tarnished the accomplishment and disrespected all the time and effort that my instructors and fellow students put in helping me get to this point.  I was disappointed, but not deterred.  The training continued.  Now here we are approaching the end of this leg of the journey. 


                Regardless of what happens on the big day I feel richly rewarded for my efforts.  I’m healthier mentally and physically, I have had a tremendous amount of fun, connected with some incredible people and one last twist of fate.  I will be testing with Jon, the first person I met at my college orientation back in 1996.  One day he just happened to walk into the dojo with his daughter Ruby, another soon to be black belt.  I strongly encouraged him to get on the mat and he’s been making me pay for it ever since.


                That about sums up my black belt journey thus far.  There’s a lot of work left to do, but like my grandfather always said “ hard work is it’s own reward”.  I believe my hard work and training have prepared me for this challenge and whatever challenges the future holds.

My Journey
By Nicholas Herrera

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