In just its second year of fielding a competition tournament team, Kokufuku School of Martial Arts has again earned multiple medals. The team won four bronze and two gold medals in August of last year and earned 16 medals at two regional tournaments in April and May.
A dozen competitors brought home eight medals in Douglasville, Ga, on April 28 and another eight medals from from Greenville, S.C., on May 19. Charles Burrows, fourth-degree black belt and head Kokufuku karate instructor, features one class per week, focused on competitive kata and kumite. Kata is a sequence of choreographed movements used in karate, and Kumite is point-sparring.
Six-year-old Gigi Jacobs won a bronze medal in Kumite, Garen Odom, 9, earned two gold medals in kumite and a silver medal in kata, Kaled Garcia, 7, earned two bronze medals in kumite and one in kata, Virginia Harding, 11, earned a bronze in kata and a silver in kumite, Christian Smith, 19, earned gold in both events, Barrett Kesling landed a bronze medal in each event, and his dad Brian Kesling won two bronze and one silver medal.
Athletes who medaled in the competitions — USA National Karate Federation (USANKF) qualifiers — are eligible to compete in the national tournament in Reno, N.V. Kokufuku will not be traveling to the national tournament this season.
“With karate being in the Olympics in 2020, even the parents that went last year have commented this year that the competition has stepped up a level ... or three,” Burrows said. “Especially in the USANKF because that’s where they are going to be picking the U.S. team from.”
Sensei Tommy Hood ran the tournament in Greenville, S.C., and ran the national tournament last year. Burrows said, because Hood will be the U.S. Olympic head coach, there was a huge spike in competitiveness at his tournament this year. “It was a lot more difficult,” Burrows said, “not only in the advanced divisions, but even in the beginner, novice, intermediate divisions. They stepped it up tremendously.”
He said karate instructors around the region have increased training times and enhanced their teaching practices, including at Downtown Dunn’s Kokufuku School of Martial Arts. For instance, Burrows estimated that one student attended 60 competition classes over five months, each at 90 minutes in duration. Thats 90 hours, or 3.75 total days of class time.
Burrows said that because the South Carolina Open is put on by Sensei Hood, this year’s tournament was a great place and time to get exposure for the dojo in Dunn.
Burrows added that his athletes are better served through competition. Competition helps his students “conquer their fears (and) conquer their nervous anxieties,” he said. “I have students who do want to compete and I want to offer them that benefit.”
The instructor and coach has several simple requirements for his students. “They have to show up for every competition class,” he said. “The parents are required to come to the first couple of competition classes and sit in (and) I give them homework assignments.”
For students, like 6-year-old Giselle Jacobs, Burrows’ and assistant coach Faith Dudley’s 1-on-1 training allowed her to be among the youngest competitors to medal at the S.C. Open. Her favorite part of training at Kokufuku is practicing her kata, specifically her “knife-hand blocks.”
GiGi, as her teammates call her, was just recently promoted to her yellow belt, and she competed in the largest division of the tournament. When she was awarded the bronze medal in point-sparring, her coaches were very proud. “She did a phenomenal job,” Burrows said.
Virginia Harding is 11 years old and she attends Dunn Middle School. She enjoyed traveling to Douglasville, Ga., where she met people from as far away as Pennsylvania while earning bronze and silver medals in separate events.
“It was really fun. Everybody felt proud of each other, and of themselves,” Virginia said. “I liked making friends and learning new things.”
Virginia’s mother, Kelly Greene of Dunn, said her daughter has been training at the downtown dojo for more than two years. “It’s made her more collected and more confident,” Greene said. “She’s very committed to it. I’m very, very proud of her.”
Also proud of her own karate medalist is Dunn’s Michelle Odom. Her son, Garen Odom, an 8-year-old student at Wayne Avenue, struggled in the beginning of his training. Mrs. Odom and Sensei Burrows said Garen wasn’t practicing at home, leading to an in-class reprimand.
“There was a time when Garen was not doing his kata right,” she said, “Sensei Burrows told him to do it right or not at all.”
Since that day, Garen has devoted much more time to practicing Okinawan karate. Mrs. Odom said he asks her to video record his moves on her phone, then he plays it back to catch his mistakes and improve. Garen earned gold medals in kumite a silver for his kata.
Last month, he was promoted to yellow belt, and he attributes that to more practice. “It feels pretty good for my first time,” Garen said of winning three medals. He hopes to do better at the next tournament.
“He was excited,” said his mom, “He wore his medals to school and to his sister’s softball tournament. We are very, very proud.”
For Kaled Garcia, a 9-year-old student at Clement Elementary School, competing in tournaments wasn’t as much about the event, but more for the travel experience.
Although Kaled won three medals, a sliver and two bronze, he enjoyed going to the kids museum in South Carolina, too. “I was impressed that I tried my best and got (three) medals,” he said. “I was amazed that I got medals.”
According to his dad, Julio Barajas, Kalen has “changed dramatically since (he was) put into Karate.” In his enjoyment, Kalen has matured, now takes direction better and he’s learned discipline. His parents, Julio and Myra Barajas, of Godwin, bought Kalen a new mountain bike to celebrate his medals. “Whenever he does something good, we’ll reward him,” said Barajas.
Barrett Kesling is a 10-year-old brown belt who attends Coats-Erwin Middle School. A different type of award motivated him to earn two more medals this year. His father, Dr. Brian Kesling, competes right by his side in the karate dojo in Downtown Dunn.
Dr. Kesling has been a chemistry professor at Campbell University for 14 years. “I could sit in my office all day long and not have any physical activity. ... This is something new and different. It’s something that I can do with my son.”
Dr. Kesling said he and Barrett attend several classes together, sequentially, every week. “We get a lot of time in. And it’s time together,” he said.
“I don’t want to send him out in the tournaments and be the guy on the sidelines, yelling ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’ and not have any idea what he’s going through,” he said. “I feel more secure with Barrett. I’ve watched what he’s done, I’ve been involved in it. So, I feel more comfortable in his ability to stand up for himself.”
Self-defense tactics are what many seek out when enrolling under Sensei Burrows. But Burrows says karate isn’t all about the punches and the kicks.
“When I work self-defense with kids, I’m like, ‘Do whatever you can to not get into a fight,’” he said. “We’re here to defend ourselves, but there are a lot of principles of martial arts. That’s what I try to instill in the kids; to have some pride and dignity in what you do.
“What I try to instill in them is the value and morals that I have, that I know common people have: courtesy, respect, dignity, pride ... without being cocky and over-confident,” Burrows said. “A lot of people think that martial arts is more about kicking, punching, defending yourself, (though) actually the principles are set where it’s more about preserving life, versus taking somebody’s life.”
While it’s his occupation — teaching kids to be physically, mentally and emotionally stronger — his purpose is much broader.
“I’m a Christian and my dojo is an extension of my family,” he said. “When I was on the tournament and I was on the floor with the kids. I looked back and I saw my family.”