The road to black belt
Senior Nick McElroy explains his experience in karate, and what it really means to be a black belt.
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From a meek freshman to a senior proudly en route to college, one upperclassman’s journey through high school was led by an unexpected passion: karate.
Senior Nick McElroy has been practicing Uechi Ryu, a style of karate originating from Okinawa, since his freshman year. Coming into a new school, McElroy was unfamiliar with Biddeford, and, as any freshman, nervous for what was to come. Through karate, McElroy found his sanctitude.
“I’ve always been kind of interested in it [karate], and I always pretended to know how to do it even though I didn’t,” said McElroy. “But then, when I was leaving middle school, I thought that I would actually try to go learn it, mainly because high school scared me. I wanted to know how to defend myself in case something happened. I didn’t want to be the kid that got thrown around.”
However, as the trees lost their leaves and winter came full-speed, McElroy learned that high school was harmless. Regardless of this lack of need for self-defense, McElroy stuck with karate, and soon developed a passion for the art.
“Going through all four years, I’ve never encountered anything, inside of school or out, where I’ve needed the martial arts,” said McElroy. “As it progressed, I didn’t need to defend myself. It was more like, now I really enjoy doing it and it’s a hobby. It became part of my life, and it gave me a lot of confidence. You have to kind of step out of your comfort zone, and it covers the social aspect, too, because if you’re not really comfortable around people, you kind of have to be.”
McElroy’s best friend, senior Richard Kidder, remembers McElroy’s first year as a freshman at BHS, and has since seen him progress into the black belt he is today.
Not only was McElroy getting the training to defend himself, but he was training in learning how to avoid situations in which he would need to defend himself. His sensei, John Scully, helped in steering McElroy down this path.
“My sensei was always really adamant about the fact that it was very important to avoid the situation in the first place,” said McElroy. “Pay attention to your surroundings, make sure you don’t hang out with bad people, that kind of thing.”
This style of karate, Uechi Ryu, combines traditional karate styles with interesting components that differ from many other styles. It originates from Okinawa, the southernmost province in Japan, where all karate originates from.
“It’s a very traditional Okinawa style of karate,” said Scully. “It has both soft components to it, as well as hard, which is somewhat unique. Most of traditional karate is fairly linear, and is mostly hard, which you use as both a yielding aspect for re-directing your opponents energy, as well as hard aspects such as punching and striking.”
Scully is presently ranked at a fifth degree black belt. In karate, there are ten degrees of black belt. Each time a new degree is achieved, training becomes more difficult in order to achieve the next degree. McElroy also ranks as a black belt, however has only achieved the first degree. He earned his black belt December 3, 2016.
“Each time you go to rank up, it takes longer and more practice,” said McElroy. “I have no idea how long it’s going to take me [to rank up]. I’m only a first degree out of the ten, but my sensei said to get to the second degree, I still have two more years of training.”
This training continues outside of the dojo, says Kidder. On regular occasions, McElroy spontaneously practices his karate skills, and even tries to teach them to McElroy.
“I never worry when I’m walking around Biddeford [with him],” said Kidder. “It’s cool though because during the summer, we’d go to Clifford park or something just to hang out, and he’d randomly do karate moves on the grass. Last year, we did a double date picnic, and the entire time he was doing karate moves. He tried to show me one of the moves, I kind of fell and hurt myself, but it’s okay.”
Each class lasts between 1-1 ½ hours. Students in the class range from all ages, even at one point including a man around in his sixties in training.
“He could barely lift his legs in the air, and he’s doing fine,” said McElroy. “He made it to brown belt, so he made it pretty far. We have an older lady too, who has shoulder problems, but she’s doing okay. It’s a social environment. People are generally very accepting, and very positive. You always have a couple of people that are kind of introverted, and they’re not very outgoing, but they’re still very accepting of others.”
However, McElroy accredits this environment to his sensei, who he says is a “role model” to him, in both karate and life.
“My sensei has always said that how good of a class he has depends on how good the students are, so the general environment of the dojo and the people in it all depends on the sensei,” said McElroy. “He runs everything, and he bestows his skills on everyone. The class runs off of the personality of the sensei. He’s probably one of the better people I’ve ever met.”
Scully remembers McElroy from his first class with him in October of 2013. Since then, he believes McElroy has grown into someone with more confidence, knowledge, and certainty.
“He moved to Biddeford, and he was starting his freshman year at the same time he was starting with me in October,” said Scully. “When he started he was uncertain. Most ninth graders are desperately seeking to find themselves and their way of life, and I don’t think Nick was any different. Over time, he became much more confident in his karate and in himself, in his place in life. I think that confidence helped him to stay on the straight and narrow and work hard.”
As for McElroy’s future in karate, he plans on attending college at Unity College in Unity, Maine. This means difficulty for McElroy’s ability to practice karate, however, he has a plan to make it work, one inspired by a former student.
“We had a student named Sarah,” said McElroy. “She was training with us, and she went halfway through brown belt, then she went to residency for medical school. She left for awhile and she stopped going to classes for months at a time. She said she trained at home, not at her college. Every once in awhile, we would skype her. There would be a little iPad in the corner with her in the background, practicing different techniques while he demonstrated to the class.”
Scully believes that karate won’t be abandoned by McElroy, but simply transformed, as it did for him.
“Based up everything that I’ve seen, and that we’ve spoken about, I don’t think karate is going to be something he’s going to give up,” said Scully. “Like it did for me, it’s going to morph into something else, because when he goes off to college, there’s no way to dojo in Unity, Maine. So, hopefully he will continue to practice it there on his own, or he will find another style to practice while he’s there.”
However, even if McElroy doesn’t continue with karate, Scully believes the influence of his class will have lasting effects on McElroy’s confidence and character.
“He’s as good as they get,” said Scully. “He’s very dedicated, he’s very focused. He works really hard. It shows, in everything he does. What I think about Nick as a karate student is that he doesn’t just embrace the physical aspect of it, he also embraces the mental aspect of it. I think that it’s helped him a great deal in kind of navigating the teenage years.”