There are several events from my past that I will never forget because they unquestionably changed my life for the better: the birth of my son, my wedding, the day I was sworn into the California Bar and the day I met Sensei Tamara Canedo.
I grew up doing karate. That’s an understatement. Karate, specifically a Korean style called Tang Soo Do, was my passion for much of my youth. I enjoyed playing other sports — mainly softball and swimming — but since I was born with a tumor on my spine that made my left leg completely numb and my entire lower body weaker than average, I was always at a disadvantage. I couldn’t run as fast as other kids. I couldn’t feel if my legs were together when doing the butterfly stroke and would get disqualified at meets. But in karate, I excelled. I couldn’t kick when sparring with classmates, but in this sport, I wasn’t at a disadvantage. I just got that much faster and stronger with my hands. I would win matches, and not because opponents went easy on me. Trust me, sometimes I sparred with my brother in class and he didn’t go easy on me. I won because I became that good.
I credit karate with helping me get through my first major spinal cord surgery, to remove a tumor when I was 10. I vividly remember my sensei at the time, Kenny Herrera, being with me the night before my surgery. He’d made the nearly two-hour drive to the hospital to keep me company. He was there when the nurse came in to give me an IV. I distinctly remember saying that I couldn’t cry in front of my sensei so as not to disappoint him. That was how passionate I was about karate.
Rediscovering the Passion
Fast-forward to May 2018. I was nearly five years into my paralysis and mother to a very shy 2-and-a-half-year-old. When I heard that a local karate dojo was offering a free class for young children, I couldn’t get my son there fast enough. I met Sensei Tamara and explained to her that I hoped my son would love karate as much as I had. She asked me why I wasn’t still training. I looked at her with a blank stare while gesturing to my wheelchair. I hoped this sensei was better at karate than she was at noticing people’s disabilities. She told me to show up at her dojo on Monday at 6 p.m. because she was going to train me.
Two days later, on Monday at 5:45 p.m., I sat outside her dojo. I’d called my mom to tell her I wasn’t going in. I was so nervous that the other students would judge me, or worse yet, mock me. My mom told me that she was going to call my old sensei and tell him to take back my fourth-degree green belt because I’d turned into a coward. That fear of disappointing Sensei Herrera flooded back, and I rolled into the dojo. I was greeted with hugs and handshakes from everyone. Not once have I been judged. And I was amazed that I retained much of my previous ability, despite not practicing for over 20 years. And despite Sensei Tamara practicing and teaching a Japanese style called Shitō-ryū.
Four months after I started training with Sensei Tamara, she had me at a competition which had a para-karate division. Para-karate is recognized by the World Karate Federation and consists of athletes who use wheelchairs, as well as visually impaired athletes and athletes with mental disabilities. Though we all fall under the same division, like competes against like. I only compete against other wheelchair athletes. And as of now, the Para-karate division only competes in katas, not sparring or weapons. (A kata is a choreographed set of movements with kicks, punches, blocks as if you’re fighting an invisible attacker.) In my first competition, I competed against three other athletes and won first place in the para kata division.
Sensei Tamara and I have had fun modifying the katas to maintain the original concept, but to adapt to my wheelchair status. We can’t add moves, but we can adapt to fit my needs. And, because wheelchair karate is still a relatively new sport, we have a little more leeway to figure out what works and doesn’t. I’ve learned to do wheelies in place of kicks, move my chair in ways to mimic certain blocks or movements, and use my arm placement on wheels to mimic the styles. Instead of fearing the reactions of my fellow students, I love hearing the words of encouragement when I break out a new trick. I am absolutely my harshest critic. I want my kata to be as smooth and as fierce as the same kata by a nondisabled person. For example, I don’t just drop my arms to turn my wheels. I have created a method that either incorporates the wheel movement or is just as sharp as if I’m using it as a defense. Or attack.
Beyond the Dojo
In February 2019, Sensei Tamara told me that she was taking me to the National Karate Championships where I was not only competing but trying out to be the first wheelchair athlete on the United States National Team. Other countries have large programs with wheelchair athletes, but the U.S. hadn’t yet had any.
I follow many of the athletes on social media. They’re real athletes. I’m a mom. And a lawyer. And almost middle-aged. I’m not a professional athlete. I do this thing where I laugh when I’m awkward or nervous, and I remember the fits of giggles that came over me. She looked me dead in the face and said, “Why are you laughing? I’m not.” I choked back the laughter as I said “Ai, Sensei.”
July found me taking a flight to Chicago, my first solo airplane trip, where I was competing in the Nationals. Really, I was just competing against myself as there was no other adult wheelchair athlete competing. There are a few young boys in wheelchairs who are doing amazing things in the sport, but they aren’t old enough to qualify.
On July 13, 2019 I was named Para-Karate Wheelchair Division National Champion and placed on the United States National Karate team. That still feels weird to say, as if I so much as whisper it, they’re going to take it away from me. After I won the competition, Sensei Tamara pulled me aside and with tears in her eyes said, “Do you realize what this means? You’re the first athlete in a wheelchair on this team. You. Are. The. First. In a male dominated sport, a female athlete with a female sensei is the first.” This was huge to me as a para-athlete, a woman and a mother.
Purpose from Punching
I can’t wait until May 2020 when I will be competing in a world competition in Costa Rica with the flag of the United States behind me for the first time. I will be competing against some of the women I respect and follow on social media. It won’t just be me against myself, more like putting on a show for people. This will be earning any medal I receive.
Even before the national team was a concept for me, I loved doing karate. It gave me focus. It helped me learn to control my mind. It helped me get through so many painful times, emotionally and physically. It gave me confidence. I almost let my completely unfounded fears of what other people would think keep me from doing a sport that means so much to me. The only person who judged me … was me. And that’s a great lesson to learn!
Sensei Tamara Canedo owns Seiden Kai JC, 78595 Highway 111 Ste 150, La Quinta, CA 92253