I was an hour into the most physically daunting challenge I had ever tackled, my black belt test. Sweat ran down my forehead. My breathing was ragged and scratched against my throat, but now came the easy part, or so I thought. I had four board breaks ahead of me. A downward hammer fist, a forward roundhouse elbow, a downward elbow, and a sidekick. All would be attempted with my dominant fist, elbow, and leg and each was a two board break.
I was confident, perhaps too confident.
Each of these board breaks I had done on numerous occasions and a plan was set in place in case I didn’t go through the boards. Although I was aware of the crowd that began to gather around me, my mind was in a place were distractions were irrelevant and fear was a challenge to surpass.
My goal and my one and only thought was of “going through,” a concept taught to students attempting board breaking. The reality is that board breaking is more of a mental game than a physical game. If you have any second thoughts, if you’re afraid or worried- you won’t break the board you have to go through. This proved true as I broke the boards with my sidekick as if slicing butter. The sidekick was the break I was most uncertain of; kicks are much harder to aim, despite being more powerful than any hand technique, but I had focused and succeeded.
Next came the downward hammer fist, my very first break, and my first double break. This was the break I was most confident in. My body moved in a rehearsed form – I brought my fist down- breathing out as I hit the board – it didn’t break. I tried again, no luck. I had a lump in my throat and the nerves began crawling, creeping up, but I gathered myself and moved on to the next break. The downward elbow was easy. The forward elbow went as planned.
It was now time for my second attempt on the downward hammer fist. Sensei Karen Bradshaw of Rising Crane Training Center, with whom I had been studying for 5 years, asked if I would try this break once again. To explain, I was allowed two tries for every break. If I didn’t make it, I moved on, and once I returned to try again, I had to decide if would I continue with the same break or if I would do my backup break.
There was no hesitance – I would break with the downward hammer. I returned to my position facing the boards. I raised my fist. I breathed out and I went through – the air was split with a crack – followed by applause. My hand stung with ferocity, but I broke the board! My last hour went by quickly and with its closure, I was barely standing. I had been pushed past my physical capability but I had done it. I had completed my black belt test after two hours of sparring, a tearful speech, a performance demonstrating self-defense, and board breaking. And now it was time for promotions. My mentor, my friend, my teacher Sensei Karen handed me my black belt. With shaking hands, I put it on stood to loud cheering. I bowed out facing the flag and seven high ranking black belts who had tested me. The flag was decorated with a Yinyang representing Cuong Nhu. Before I could finish bowing, my legs were taken out from underneath me. I had one – and then ten, and then twenty – people on me, hugging and congratulating.
I saw my parents smiling. I would later learn they spent the entire time on the edge of their seats soaked in worry. I saw my sisters, my friends, the students I have taught, the individuals I had trained with for five years, my RFHS Spanish teacher Nina Marin-Tapias, who has changed my life, and I saw Sensei Karen.
I couldn’t move. I could only let pure skyrocketing emotion take me. I was crying out of gratefulness and pure happiness. My dream, my goal; I had achieved it and a weight was lifted off my shoulders and spilled out in salty tears.
This is how I earned my black belt, though of course, how I earned it really happened in moments, in hours, and in days in the dojo over the past five years. This is an accomplishment, and also an outer symbol of the inner qualities that I developed through Cuong Nhu.
I can handle myself in a fight; I can explore the beautiful mountains of Colorado with relative ease; I am stronger in sports outside of Cuong Nhu; I stay healthy; I can do anything. Although I listen to my body with caution and care, I can ignore physical limitations such as tired muscles. I am able to focus my attention on a single goal, no matter what is coming at me or happening around me. This has helped me in school, on tests, and in my other sport, Nordic Ski Racing. Sensei Karen helped me to develop this state of mental-being, a combination of determination and attention to detail that allows me to block out distractions. She also helped me develop my voice, problem-solving skills, and leadership capabilities. I go into every new challenge with a positive, and ready-for-anything attitude, no matter if it is in school, family life, or something unexpected.