I started training JKA Karate under Sensei Karl von der Marwitz back in 1996, my Matric year. At the end of 1996, I stopped karate due to travels and studying but always felt like I wanted to get back into it.
Sensei Karl and I remained friends and played some touch rugby from time to time over the next several years. In 2000 I joined S & K Karate and met Sensei Steve Johnson for the first time as well as being introduced to Shorin-Ryu Karate.
In mid-2002, after receiving my brown belt, I was given the privilege of attempting my Shodan black belt by Shihan Claude Johnson. So over the next 5 months I trained hard and spent some extra time training with Sensei Karl and Sensei Steve in preparation for my first black belt grading.
The Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan black belt gradings are approximately 5 hours of intense physical endurance as you are put through basics, kata, and fitness before being thrown into kumite and made to fight your way through several opponents, one after the other until you can no longer keep your hands up.
These gradings are normally done on a hot Friday evening in early December, and it’s usually one of the hottest humid days of the year. This Shodan attempt, however, would be one for the books. It’s not that it was extremely hot, it was an average summers day, but I had the honour of sharing the grading floor with my Sensei’s as they attempted their Sandan black belt grades.
On Friday, 6 December 2002, after hours of basics, kata, and fitness, we were put into a circle around the floor to commence with the kumite section of our grading.
I stood in the circle with fear and trepidation, waiting for my name to be called, as I watched my Sensei’s put their bodies on the line until they could barely lift their hands. Eventually it was all over, but I hadn’t been given the chance to enter the circle and fight.
Relief set in but at the same time I wondered if this meant I would get my Shodan or not. The panel went off to deliberate, and upon return, we were lined up in order of current rank as we awaited the much-anticipated news.
Names were called out from the lowest grade to the highest. My name was never called that night. There were mixed feelings as I left the dojo: elation as I celebrated with my Sensei’s for achieving their Sandan grades, but also discouragement in being 1 of only 2 people not to get their black belt that night.
Even more so in being the first, and only, S & K student to have ever failed a black belt grading.
Over the next 12 months, I trained harder and dug deeper to find any ounce of fighting spirit I may have, and to improve me karate for my 2nd attempt. I spent those 12 months proving to myself that failure is not final unless I gave up. I refused to give up.
I showed Nintai throughout that year, and on the morning of Saturday, 6 December 2003, I showed more Nintai as I attempted my Shodan grading for the 2nd time, giving it everything I had to become a black belt, and make my Sensei’s proud.
17 years later, this still ranks as one of my most memorable gradings, along with my Jiu-Jitsu purple belt grading. I still have my grading sheet marked by Sensei Tom Hayes, and my certificate still hangs proudly on the wall in my study, along side the rest of my Karate black belt and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu certificates.
You may notice I emphasised “get” in an earlier paragraph and “become” in this last paragraph. This may be a tiny difference in vocabulary, but it is a fundamental difference in mindset. Get as a doing word, or verb, means to obtain or acquire. Become is also a doing word or verb, which translates as develop or grow into.
Now don’t get me wrong, it is very special to get something you achieved by being determined through blood, sweat, and tears; but become places the focus on you and the effort you have put it.
And so the belt becomes a by-product. The black belt is something you must grow into, and never stop growing into. The time from white belt to black belt is the journey preparation, packing your bags so to speak.
Becoming a black belt means you are now ready to start your journey…
All the instructors mentioned above are now 7th and 8th Dan Kyoshis, each with their own journey’s.
I am grateful and privileged to be a part of their family and for their time, instruction, and mentoring over the many years of training.