The 2018 AAU/USA Karate National Championships kick off this week in Fort Lauderdale — and one local dojo will be well-represented.
Wesley Chapel’s Keiko Shin Karate Academy (KSKA) is sending 22 athletes, ranging in ages 6 to 18, to square up against more than 3,000 elite, top karate competitors from the United States and beyond.
The event runs from June 27 to June 30 at the Broward County Convention Center and draws competitors from all across the U.S., as well as from Israel, Poland, Russia and South America.
The academy, located at 3753 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., is no stranger to the national stage.
In 2015, KSKA took 20 students to the AAU nationals in Raleigh, North Carolina, and returned with 34 medals, including 22 gold medals.
The next year, the team claimed 17 medals at nationals.
Under the instruction and guidance of their sensei, Ernesto Fuentes, this year’s group has undergone rigorous preparation, enduring various types of cross-training, cardio, yoga and intense hours of traditional Shotokan karate, fine-tuning speed, agility, reaction times and more.
Since the beginning of summer, training has consisted of many 10-hour days, often from 10 am. to 8 p.m.
Alongside the fitness and technical components, Fuentes has coached his students on motivational techniques, to help them maximize their potential.
“I don’t believe that we have another academy, at least not in the state of Florida, that’s training so many hours,” said Fuentes, an International 5th Dan Karate Instructor who’s been teaching the sport since 1983. “We believe the training is going to pay off.”
Several KSKA athletes are making their return to AAU nationals, including 15-year-old Lauren Anderson and 18-year-old Destiny Walls.
In 2015, Anderson, then 12, won a gold medal in the Kumite (sparring) beginner division. The following year, she placed second in the Kata (form) novice division.
An advanced brown belt, she’s hoping for similar results.
Meantime, she’s excited to cheer on 21 of her peers.
“It’s really nice to watch everyone (succeed),” said Anderson, who attends Wiregrass Ranch High School. “I like to go and support as many people as possible.”
She also noted: “It’s really nice to see them excel, but it’s also nice to be there and to help them when they fall or don’t do as well.”
Anderson said nationals is “almost the same as other competitions, but it’s just bigger.
“It gets nerve-wracking,” she said, “(but) it makes you better, because you have more people (to compete against).”
Walls, meanwhile, earned a third-place finish in the Kata intermediate division at 2016 nationals.
A black belt, Walls is striving for gold this time around.
With thousands of other top athletes looking on, Walls said she expects to feel an adrenaline rush when it’s her turn to compete.
“You’re so nervous, but at the same time when you get at the mat, the nervousness goes away, and you’re ready to go,” Walls said.
Karate offers physical, social benefits
At KSKA and other dojos, karate is more than just a martial art sport — it’s a lifestyle.
Anderson credits it for boosting her confidence and self-esteem, as well as her composure.
“I used to be super sensitive, like certain things would get to me really easily, but now I’ve learned to take control of my emotions and stuff,” Anderson said.
The sport’s benefits also translate to the classroom, she said.
“It helps you with not only being physically active, but it also helps you mentally,” she added. “My grades weren’t very good before I came here, and now I have straight As, As and Bs.”
Karate also transformed Wall’s life, since she signed up more than eight years ago.
Wall said she was headed down the wrong path, getting into trouble and performing poorly in school — but karate gave her a positive outlet and a sense of belonging.
Over the years, she’s become an honor roll student and now has aspirations to become a nurse once she graduates from Cypress Creek Middle High School in 2019.
“I wasn’t really focused and my self-esteem had a lot to do with it. Since I started karate, it’s helped me,” Walls said.
“I’m able to talk to (people), which I used to never be able to do that. I’m able to go out and learn, and just keep going and not quit,” she said.
Fuentes said Walls has morphed from a shy, insecure girl into a leader — “being the person that she wanted to be and we all want to see in a child.”
Now, one of the dojo’s most experienced students, Walls assists Fuentes in the afterschool program as a youth instructor.
“I love now that I teach,” Walls said. “I love helping the little ones, being able to show them what family is and how to grow with each other.”
Fuentes, who has a master’s degree in child psychology, explained the sport’s structure, plus the discipline and dedication required to master it, aids in social and intellectual development.
Fuentes trains more than 200 students at KSKA and each must maintain at least a B average in school.
“Karate works a different aspect, different segments of their brain,” Fuentes said. “It’s proven that the kids that practice karate are immediately better students in school. In a fraction of a second, they need to be able to think and be in position.”
The sensei, too, incorporates a holistic approach in his karate teachings, encouraging students to believe in themselves, show compassion for others and avoid confrontation. Sportsmanship is emphasized, too.
“It’s not about self-defense, it’s about self-esteem,” he said.
“When you have self-esteem, you’re not going to let anybody mess with you, nobody bullies you, you’re OK if somebody looks at you weird; you have self-esteem, so you don’t care.”
Parent Les Borowksi has witnessed the benefits karate has had on his two children, Nicholas, 12, and Olivia, 10 — both of whom will compete in AAU nationals.
Borowski said his children have become more attentive at school, more respectful to adults and peers, and generally more helpful toward others since they became involved in karate.
“This thing (karate) turns lives around,” Borowski said. “When I talk to other people who have kids, they think I’m some kind of marketing person (for karate).”
While he’s not paid to tout it, he is enthusiastic: “Just find a good quality, traditional martial arts school and go for it,” Borowski said.
For more information about Keiko Shin Karate Academy, call (813) 994-9253, or visit KeikoShin.com.
Athletes from Keiko Shin who qualified to represent Florida at 2018 AAU Karate National Championships.
Gian Jaydem Rios
Published June 27, 2018