Minggu, 11 Januari 2009

Sioux Falls 5-year-old is a black belt with all the right moves (video)

Maggie Stehr • mstehr@argusleader.com • January 11, 2009

The chicken nuggets are good, Dominic Meza mumbles with a full mouth. More ketchup, though.

His tiny fingers can't pry open the container, so his father squirts ketchup into the paper carton as 5-year-old Dominic dunks his final nugget.

"Look," he says, pointing to the overturned Happy Meal bag. "They gave me two toys!"

Soon, though, Meza leaves the surfing cartoon penguin and Star Wars figure behind. He races across the mat inside his family's Sioux Falls karate studio.

His dark eyes turn serious. His body stiffens as he maneuvers a martial arts sword through the air, cutting the silence with a traditional technique.

Say hello to the real-life Karate Kid.

The same slight hands that struggled to open a ketchup packet can break a 11/4-inch pine board, perform 300-plus push-ups and execute 120 squats and kicks.

Between starting kindergarten, learning to tie his shoes and coloring between the lines, Dominic has earned a junior karate black belt.

With less than three years of training, the 5-year-old is among the youngest students in the nation to achieve such a distinction.

While his junior black belt falls short of full certification - the testing requirements were more lenient to accommodate his young age - Meza is working toward a first-degree black belt this summer.

He hopes to test alongside his mother, father and uncle, who also will be trying out for higher black belt degrees.

"It's like that old saying," says Dominic's father, Raul. "The family that kicks together, sticks together."
Alive and kicking

Before Dominic was even born, his mother, Danielle, figured he was destined for martial arts.

She was 25 years old and eight months pregnant with her first son when she earned her red belt in karate, one level below a black belt.

As she and Raul drove to their classes, Dominic would start kicking inside her belly. The young couple joked that their son was getting warmed up for mom's routines.

"He would hear the music at class and just start moving like crazy," Danielle says.

At age 2, Dominic started taking classes at his family's studio - Meza's Karate America. The main requirement at that time, according to his grandmother, Dalia, who owned the school and served as head instructor, was to be potty-trained.

Dominic showed promise early, advancing quickly through classes with kids at least twice his age. Three years later, his parents decided he was ready to test for his junior black belt.

That doesn't mean that he moved like Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. He was simply ready for the next challenge.

"There's a misconception that you see a black belt and they should be masters of karate," said Danielle, whose son attends kindergarten at John Harris Elementary. "But it's not like the movies. We're talking about real people, and we expect everyone to do their best - but everyone's best is a little different."
Different standards

On a Saturday morning in December, Dominic and 11 other students worked through the rigorous black belt test.

In nearly three hours, the 5-year-old performed about 1,000 karate techniques for two judges - his father, who took over Karate America two years ago, and another fourth-degree black belt, who flew in from Arizona.

Without any national martial arts testing standards, each school sets its own requirements for belt advancement, said Jake Lease, director of member services for the USA National Karate Federation.

Lease said a 5-year-old capable of performing black belt techniques is "extremely rare indeed," adding that judging merit is subjective without any national standard.

Bill Bly, media director for the USA National Karate Federation, said more young students are enrolling in karate classes that offer age-appropriate curriculum - a sort of "watered down" version of adult martial arts programs.

Once a student receives a junior black belt, like Dominic, he can begin working toward senior status, which involves the same techniques he completed in his first test, just with more precise skill and greater power, Bly said.

Dominic's father, Raul, admits his son's form isn't always perfect, and memorizing the routines is the biggest challenge. But both he and the national karate officials said a black belt means more than fighting techniques.

"Martial arts is not just punches and kicks," Raul said. "If that were the case, we'd never have children black belts. It's about the life skills, the leader a person becomes as they train to become a black belt."
Family tradition

For the Mezas, Dominic's test was a family affair. Joining his parents for the occasion were his aunt and grandparents, who all hold black belts in at least one form of martial arts.

The day was especially familiar for his grandfather, Raul, who can remember back nearly 20 years when he handed Dominic's father his first black belt.

"When he started, he was a natural - just like Dominic," said the elder Raul said of his son. "Some people just take to things, like a duck to water."

The younger Raul recognizes the same traits in his own son. By the end of testing, he could see signs of exhaustion on Dominic's face.

But after executing basics such as kicking and punching, sparring with a partner, weapons techniques and breaking a wooden board - along with reciting traditional creeds about attitude and discipline - a smile replaced the fatigue as Dominic received his black belt.

"I could see that he was proud of himself," father Raul said. "It's special when anyone gets their black belt, but what Dominic did was really unique."
Still just a kid

Almost a month later, Dominic is shy about his accomplishment. He likes the weapons techniques the most, he whispers, because he gets to work with a sword. Karate America's youngest black belt squirms in his metal folding chair, his feet dangling several inches above the floor.

Minutes later, he runs to the middle of the studio, finally looking at ease as he assumes his first karate position.

He swings the martial arts sword over his head, later reciting several traditional tenets with as much force as his 5-year-old body can muster. His form is less than perfect, and he spends much of the routing mimicking his father's lead.

Once the performance is over, Dominic dashes off the mat. He re-emerges later with one of his Happy Meal toys, sending the plastic penguin surfing across the studio in a spray of giggles.
'This is what we do'

Dominic's parents admit that their young student's motivation sometimes wanes. But Raul said he is confident his son enjoys karate and doesn't feel pushed into the family pursuit.

"As a parent, there are some things you have to make your kid do," Raul said. "You have to go to school, you have to take swimming lessons, but karate has never been something we've forced Dominic into.

"He looks forward to coming to class, because it's something he can do with his whole family. It's something he can do for the rest of his life."

And it already looks like Dominic won't be the last Meza to follow the tradition. At 19 months, his sister, Gianna, is already taking baby steps toward her own black belt.

She accompanies her parents and big brother to advanced black belt classes, usually playing off to the side with other children. Sometimes, she tries to join in, clapping along with the students, doing push-ups with mom or burbling out karate chants through her pacifier.

Her father predicts another karate protege. But not until she overcomes one more hurdle: potty training.

"Karate, this is what we do," Raul says with a smile. "Some kids go play catch. We don't catch. We run around and punch and kick."

Across the country, more preschool karate programs are popping up that start children as young as two or three in classes.

Such lessons focus less of physical technique and more on personal awareness - self-confidence, fitness and learning to deal with bullies or dangerous strangers, said Jason Lease, director of member services for USA National Karate Federation, a national governing body that works directly with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The benefits of martial arts are wide-reaching, Lease said. Along with physical fitness, karate has shown effective in improving grades by improving focus and concentration skills. The sport also helps with confidence and teaches valuable self-defense skills.

"There's nary a thing that martial arts can't help with," Lease said. "The obvious are physical, but it touches on every part of a person's mental, emotional, phy sical and spiritual wellness."

For parents interested in getting their children involved in martial arts, here are some local schools in Sioux Falls:

# Meza's Karate America, 332-3079

# Action Mixed Martial Arts, 336-3987

# Larry Hoover's ATA Tae Kwon Do, 332-1778

# Sims Martial Arts Academy, 371-9000

# Victory Martial Arts (at Sanford Wellness Center), 692-2976

# Sioux Falls Martial Arts Academy, 575-0958

# Karate North Tae Kwon Do, 376-4189