Wesley Chapel sensei leads karate students to success

In some athletic leagues everyone earns a medal, ribbon or trophy for participating. In others, awards only are handed out to those who win them.

Sensei Ernesto Fuentes, far right, leads the dojo in some routine moves with his son, Alex, who is a sensei as well. Fuentes’ daughters, Sashi and Alexa, also are leaders in the academy, and accomplished students themselves.  (Michael Murillo/Staff Photo)

Sensei Ernesto Fuentes, far right, leads the dojo in some routine moves with his son, Alex, who is a sensei as well. Fuentes’ daughters, Sashi and Alexa, also are leaders in the academy, and accomplished students themselves.
(Michael Murillo/Staff Photo)

So when 34 students from the Keiko Shin Karate Academy competed in the United Traditional Karate Alliance district championships and all 34 came home with medals, one might wonder how they got them.

But make no mistake, those weren’t participation medals. Every student earned at least one award in the competition, showing off their karate skills and bringing home a haul of 60 medals total from the event, held March 1 at the University of South Florida.

Their sensei, Ernesto Fuentes, was very proud of their success, but said that shiny medals aren’t the reason he teaches.

“For me, seeing a medal is not as important as seeing the face of the kid achieving and winning something, the satisfaction of achieving something,” he said.

Child development is ingrained in the dojo — the place where martial arts are taught — because it’s an important issue for Fuentes. In his native Venezuela, he was a successful trial attorney, often dealing with custody cases. He also has a master’s degree in child psychology.

While his academy teaches students of all ages, he takes special pride in seeing the accomplishments of his young students and watching them succeed.

But that success is not limited to the dojo or at a competition. Fuentes’ program stresses that the discipline and respect taught by martial arts should be applied to all parts of a student’s daily schedule.

“Karate and marital arts is a way of life. I talk to my students every day,” Fuentes said. “I say ‘The same way you behave at the academy is the way you behave in school and behave at your house. It’s a 24/7 commitment to be a better person and a good citizen.’“

Parents will often recruit him for guidance to solve a school or home issue, and he makes himself available to advise students when they need it.

And his students respond in ways that sometimes even surprise themselves.

“I wasn’t the best kid. I used to get in trouble a lot,” admits Caleb Embry, 13.

A regular C student, once he started taking karate about a year ago, his grades went up to A’s and B’s. Martial arts also has challenged him to learn new things and compete, and he responded at the district championships with two first-place medals.

He attributes his success to karate and Fuentes’ teachings.

“Karate helped me stay straight,” he said. “It keeps you focused.”

Jose Gomez, 15, also is direct about the impact martial arts has had on him.

“It changed my life, especially in the education area. It made me a better student,” he said. “I’ve been doing better in my life in general. Not only physically, but emotionally.”

Where he used to go home after school and play video games, he’s now focused on karate, competing, and improving himself.

That focus led to a couple of medals at the district competition, but improvement also has been seen in the classroom.

“I was a C student, and when I started doing karate, I became an A student,” Gomez said.

As a result, he received Long Middle School’s Turnaround award for his improvement. He even mentioned the influence that karate has had on him in his speech at the awards banquet.

While Fuentes is soft-spoken, his martial arts resume speaks for itself. He was a national champion for 10 years running in Venezuela, and won an American championship in 1989. He said that seeing his students succeed brings out the same feelings he experienced in his own competitions.

“It’s a little deja vu. Watching them compete, I get the same emotions, nerves, butterflies in my stomach,” he said. “The same things as when I was a competitor. And multiply it by 34.”

While Fuentes challenges his students and drives them to constantly get better, he said the motivation isn’t a one-way street. He feels a strong responsibility to live up to the high standards he sets for everyone in the dojo.

“They force me to learn. I need to be better for them every day,” he said. “I need to study for them every day, because I want them to be challenged every day.”

The dojo is located at 3753 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. For information about Keiko Shin Karate, visit WesleyChapelKarateAcademy.com, or call (813) 994-9253.

Published March 26, 2014

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