Approximately 1 year ago this week I started my training at the Red Dragon Karate Studio in Via Verde (aka RDK San Dimas). This event, which I know took a lot of friends, family, and fans by surprise — mainly because, up until that point I had been very large (as high as 450 pounds in the distant past, and nearly 380 in more recent times), very out of shape (unless the shape you were thinking of was ROUND), and not very active (unless playing Skyrim for hours on end counts as ‘active’). For me, exercise meant getting up to go to the fridge instead of sending one of the kids for a Klondike Bar.
All of that started to change for me about a year and a half ago. After a ton of really bad health scares and some nasty stomach surgery, I decided it was probably a good time to get healthy…or, at least, healthier. Having 2 kids was a very big factor in wanting to make things better. Kids are a great motivator. As part of that ‘getting healthier’ plan, Athena and I began going to the gym a few nights a week, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to do more and, thanks to Nicholas (my son), I started to formulate exactly what I should do next.
I’d always been interested in martial arts. When I was a kid I studied karate while growing up in Hawaii and had gotten pretty far with it. I’d reached brown belt before I stopped…due to either girls or, more likely, to comic books and Dungeons & Dragons. I’d done better with aikido, where I’d reached black belt in Ki-Aikido by the time I was 19. While I had long since given both up by my early 20s, the idea of going back had found a small area somewhere deep in the back of my brain, where it festered and bubbled. When we signed Nicholas up at Red Dragon Karate in 2011, the itch returned…and grew with each month that passed.
Watching Nicholas learning karate was out and out fun for me. It was awesome to see him grow through being a ‘mini-Dragon’ (students under 6) up through his orange belt. Each week I spent sitting in the stands and observing his class (honed in on studying every new move and every new kata he learned), the urge to join in grew. Of course, being 380 and getting winded from getting up to go to the rest room made the thought a bit…unrealistic for me. If nothing else, I didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself hopelessly in front of the teachers…and other parents.
So, when I started to lose weight and get in (slightly) better shape, I decided to give it a shot. If nothing else, I figured I’d try out a couple of classes and could stop at any point. What could possibly go wrong?
With that attitude in mind, I approached Sensei Mike Salcido at the front desk of RDK and told him my plan. I’m not sure who was more surprised by the idea — me, my wife, or Sensei Mike. I’m convinced he thought I was messing with him at first…and probably at second, too. But, I persisted and convince him I was serious.
Well, as serious as I am able to be.
My first class was horrible. I’m not going to lie. Halfway through the 30 minute session and I was pretty sure I was going to die. Ok, it was more like 5 minutes in when I was convinced death was coming. I had problems with the warm-up exercises: run-ups (where you run up and down a small step), side hops (basically hopping left and right)…and let’s never mention the sit-ups or push-ups. By the end of the first class I looked like I’d been shoved into a pool…I was soaked with sweat and panting so hard I couldn’t form coherent words. As I left, I can still remember seeing Sensei Carina behind the front desk looking through the dojo’s insurance policy to make sure they were covered for accidentally killing a student.
But, I survived. And, to everyone’s astonishment (including my own), I had a fantastic time. As tiring and painful as it was, it was also exhilarating and fantastic. It was a lot of fun…and I was able to bond with my son who had already advanced to orange belt at this point.
From my second or third class. If you look close, you can see that two of the toes of my right foot are purple…I believe I broke or fractured them on day 1.
Since that time, one year ago, things have gotten a lot better. I’m now down to about 220 pounds — the gi I bought last year now hangs on me and I should really consider getting a newer one. I can now do all of the exercises in class without feeling like my heart is going to implode in my chest. I still sweat like a leaky faucet, but not nearly as much. And I’ve gone from white belt to green (and hopefully to brown next month!). But the most important thing is that I’ve learned a lot about myself and my determination. I’ve also learned a lot about the amazing martial art form and philosophy that makes up Red Dragon Karate. That knowledge — both about myself and the art itself — is what has powered me along. Every little thing I learn makes me want to learn more and to refine what I know.
The feeling has been amazing.
I’m going to stop talking here and show off some pictures from my journey as a student at Red Dragon Karate.
Posing with Nicholas right before our first tournament. I’d been at RDK for 2 months at this point and already moved up to yellow belt. I have to admit that I cheated a bit. After watching Nicholas is class for 2 years at this point, I knew most of his katas like the back of my hand.
Hanging out with Shihan Chris Casamassa at ComiKaze 2013. This is about 3 months after I started and both Chris and I were appearing at the convention. For those of you who don’t know, Shihan Chris is an 8th degree black belt in Red Dragon Karate and the form was founded by his father, Lou Casamassa, back in 1965. Even cooler, is that Chris is Scorpion from Mortal Kombat!
Nicholas and I right after a belt test in November 2013. He received his blue belt and I moved up to orange. It was so much fun to be able to test with him.
Hanging out with Sensei Mike after our test in February 2014. Sensei Mike is a fantastic teacher and one of the best I’ve seen with the kids.
From my second tournament. I took first place in the weapons kata…and was disappointed that the trophies weren’t made of chocolate.
The day after that tournament where I went into the hospital to take care of some nasty pains I’d been having in my chest for the previous week. My gall bladder would be removed a few hours later. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that trophy?
Here I’ve just finished testing for my green belt and am hanging with Sensei Mike and Sensei Jessica Lua.
Posing with Scorpion once more. For me, it’s crazy to see how much slimmer I look here than in the first picture we took together. Of course, Shihan Chris always looks perfect…the bastard!
My last tournament, The Summer Nationals in August 2014. I came away with two 2nd place and one 1st place trophies…I also nearly brained myself at the beginning of my bo kata. Doh!
And there you have it. My year-long journey as a student of Red Dragon Karate. It’s been more fun than I could have imagined and I’m in far better shape that I could ever have hoped for. I cannot recommend the program enough for kids or for adults like me who are looking to get fit and healthy. The classes are a health builder and, just as important, a confidence builder. You’ll feel better about yourself all the way around.
Go Red Dragon!!
-Mathias Nastos, The Karate Geek!