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We were standing in the dojo on the second floor of Yosh Uchida Hall in my former college where I used to train. I had joined the Karate Club after coercion from some friends, and one of them ranked as a Brown Belt in karate-do. He was teaching the class that day before our Sensei came in to take over, and he was walking us through the first kata. It might've been my second club meeting, and I was trying to memorize the next few steps of the short kata. Sempai paced the room as he counted, "One." Ki-ai. "Two." Ki-ai. Still keeping count, he walked up to me and effortlessly readjusted my balled-up fists a few degrees to where they should be. I remember, at that precise moment, glancing down at the brown belt he wore and thinking, "No way I could make it that far in rank. I don't have the strength, will, time, or endurance." Everyone around me breezed through the first kata, crisp and precise in their movements. And there I was, couldn't remember beyond Step 3 by the time I had fumbled through the entire thing from beginning to end.
This past Saturday, I tested for nikyu. I have to give props to my uke—I know not everyone wants to prepare a whoppin' two-and-a-half months before their actual test, and without complaint, he stayed many overtime dojo nights willing to be tossed around by me. He worked through the sore shoulder and the yonkyo bruises and the snagging of his toes on mat seams coming up from a roll. He put up with me tripping over him during shihonage from hanmi-handachi; falling on him during jiyu-waza; ramming his face into my knee during kaiten nage; me running into his knee during a poorly-timed sweep-attack from suwari waza. He showed patience through my inability to grasp the basic concept of sankyo ura, for not extending enough, or turning enough, or stepping back far enough. And when the test was over, he told me what a good job I did, even after having gone through all the ugly of the preparation process.
My three Sensei each gave me a point of critique after the test for me to work on as I continue training:
1.) Watch the hanmi. It's often too wide.
2.) Step back more for irimi and for attacks from ushiro ryote dori.
3.) Tighten the ma-ai during jiyu-waza.
And for the positive comments:
1.) I am decisive, focused, determined, and crisp in my techniques.
2.) I move in an "aikido-like manner." When I asked what Sensei meant by that, he explained that after I got up from pinning my uke, whether from called-out techniques or free-form jiyu waza, he noticed the way I walked or got back into position. He said I was spiraling and scanning my environment. I told him it was totally unconscious, and he told me, "Good!"
On the mat that day, there were only three women, including myself, among the fifteen-or-so guys present. The one comment that really made my day was when a mother of one of the students taking a test from the kids' class walked up to me and said, "It was an honor to see you test." I was genuinely surprised and touched—I never thought doing my best would honor anybody. As the world fell away when I was concentrating on my test, I had even forgotten that I had an audience, and here was this woman visiting the dojo, actually engaged and watching me the whole time.
It was ten years ago when I admired my friend's brown belt and telling myself it was a goal beyond my reach. The Monday after my nikyu test, I suited up in the Ladies' Room before training, wearing my newly-earned belt for the first time. A rush of pleasure and happiness flooded over me as I wrapped it around my waist, akin to finally owning an article of clothing I've waited years and years for. I thought back to that young girl who didn't quite believe in herself, who didn't think she could possibly make anyone proud, who probably would never get to wear a brown belt. Well, here I am.