Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Parents and teens find common ground in full-contact karate class

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Brendan Spealman, 21, of Kensington has a kick blocked during his Kyokushin class taught by Gary Reburn (back) recently.
Scott Spealman, 16, of Kensington, took a swift kick to the head on a recent night while training at his Rockville karate school, or ‘‘dojo.”

His mother held her breath for a second, tracking her son’s every move, then sighed.

‘‘I’m not allowed to go to their tournaments,” Donna Spealman said while watching as her sons Scott and Brendan, 21, trained at their Kyokushin class, a full-contact style of Japanese karate. ‘‘But we support them completely.”

That passion for karate is something that unites two generations of the Spealman family.

Scott and Brendan Spealman earned their black belts in July after seven and six years of training, respectively.

Their father, Alan Spealman, earned two degrees of black belts in martial arts before his sons were even born. He met his wife, Donna, in the 1970s when she was a student in his karate class in Philadelphia.

But while the whole family shares an interest in martial arts, the style of karate practiced by the younger generation is a whole different animal.

Kyokushin involves full contact combat, said Gary Reburn, head of the Phoenix Karatedo Association, a Rockville dojo.

Students of the form wear no padding during their lessons or tournaments, aside from an occasional padded boxing helmet, so there is nothing to dull the impact of punches and kicks. The only way to escape a hit is to block or dodge it.

The Rockville dojo – the only one in the region offering the full-contact karate — is part of the International Kyokushin Association. The association has five dojos in the United States, seven in Russia and one each in Rwanda and Canada.

Most karate schools in the area, according to Reburn, require padding and rarely—if ever—allow if hand-to-hand combat.

But for all the sport’s physical demands, poundings and beatings, Reburn said it’s not unusual for parents and children to take the full-contact karate classes together. The training and discipline are things that will benefit his students for the rest of their lives, no matter their age.

‘‘You can’t imagine the boost in self confidence they get,” he said. ‘‘It’s training for life, that’s what you’re doing. There will be setbacks and trouble and every time you get knocked down you get back up.”

Such is the case for Sergiy and Paul Zhgilov, of Gaithersburg.

Paul, 17, earned his black belt two years ago. His father Sergiy, 52, earned his black belt last month after first participating in the training some three decades ago in his native Ukraine.

‘‘Thirty years ago, I studied in the former Soviet Union when it was restricted [there],” Sergiy said, adding that karate was banned since it was viewed as a weapon similar to a gun.

He returned to it after undergoing quintuple bypass heart surgery four years ago, as a way to exercise and spend time with his son.

Black belt candidates attend an annual weekend of tests that includes fights, both on mats and neck-deep in a lake, at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmittsburg, Md.

Students demonstrate skills like breaking several cinder blocks with a kick or fighting with karate weapons such as staffs.

Injuries are not uncommon, but the Spealman parents said the bruises and cuts are all part of the sport that helped their boys mature.

‘‘We’ve seen them become confident young men, and their concentration is so improved,” Donna Spealman said.

Their sons are spreading the word by teaching a modified version in after-school karate classes at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda and at their dojo.

Brendan hopes to use the black belt skills to become an FBI agent after he graduates from St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland this year.

Scott, a rising senior at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, said the karate conditions him for hockey season.

And then there are the other side benefits.

‘‘Chicks dig scars,” he said with a laugh. ‘‘Really, it’s about doing everything else to your fullest ability. [The black belt] was a goal five years ago, now the goal is to keep on becoming better. It was kind of a wakeup call for me, makes me want to train harder.”