For the last ten months I’ve been cruising along, assuming I’d be testing maybe in October, maybe December, maybe even later.  In our organization, at this stage (brown belt) us students usually “marinate” for awhile.  Out of the blue, I found out my sensei(s) wanted me to test for 2nd kyu (“middle brown” in our system).


But that’s not the surprise I’ll be blogging about.

I reserved a motel room post haste. I go to Oregon a lot for Karate and had promised each of my family members a trip with me. It was my younger daughter’s turn. We spent three hours in the car, ate dinner at a favorite restaurant, relaxed in the motel room, then both of us fell into a deep, long sleep. We had a leisurely morning before I had to report for testing. I parked my daughter in one of the few remaining seats and handed her my camera. Alas, my daughter was too far away and too far back in the audience to get good videos of me. When I reviewed the video, I saw that the audience was not expecting to see what they saw during my sparring matches.

The moms and dads who were there to watch their kiddos test were surprised by what was expected of me and by my ability to meet the challenge. My age is pretty obvious – I have a bit of a tummy, a few silver hairs, and crow’s feet crinkle the skin near my eyes when I smile. I was also being very motherly towards a young adult who looks a lot like me. Yes, it’s reasonable for anyone to conclude I’m in my midlife.

All of us who were testing that day were put through our paces. Jiyu kumite (sparring) is always last. By that time I was quite literally dripping with sweat and I always get beet red during a workout. I was probably a rather alarming sight to those who don’t know that I usually look like that when I work out.

Here’s my observations of the audience’s reactions as seen on the video my daughter took while I was sparring…

There was some surprised chatter as I bowed in. Yes, us old ladies are expected to fight. Yes, I’m old enough to be a young auntie to my first opponent. Yes, my opponent was a yudansha (black belt). The match began and there were murmurs of appreciation for each flurry of fists and feet. My first opponent scored three times before I got my point.

After my opponent exited the ring, hesitant applause began.  The clapping ended abruptly and two or three people drawled astonished “Ohhh-s” when my second opponent stepped onto the mats.

People sat bolt upright. Up until this point, they’d seen their children spar only one opponent, then they were done.

My second opponent was another yudansha who is younger than I. She scored one point then I got my score. The audience wasn’t familiar with the referee’s calls, so they didn’t react.

My first opponent immediately came up for another round with me. The audience murmured, surprised at her return.

The guy sitting in front of my daughter, who was taking video, turned and looked right into the camera when my first opponent came up again. Clearly he was thinking, “What more do they expect of your mom?!?” He’d heard me reassure my special-needs daughter that the match would look scary but more than likely I’d be perfectly OK. He seemed to have his doubts.

First thing that happened in this third match was I went down – probably my opponent swept me but it’s more likely I tripped over my own feet. Oddly, there was not much reaction when I fell and came back up with a rather primal kiai (yell) – a roar of challenge. There was dead silence from the audience. The referee called a halt, I returned to my starting position, my opponent was awarded one point. When the match was resumed, someone in the audience gave an astonished “Ooooooo!” that rose from low to high in pitch, indicating that person couldn’t believe my tenacity and was amazed that I was continuing like nothing happened.

Throughout the rest of the match, only scattered murmuring could occasionally be heard – for the most part, silence reigned.   The match went on, interrupted from time to time by scores (hers), only one flag thrown (there need to be two flags for points to be awarded), and a foul (mine).  The guy sitting in front of my daughter shifted uncomfortably then leaned forward, watching intently.  The rest of the audience appeared to be holding its collective breath.

The audience was unfamiliar with the referee’s calls, so they didn’t applaud immediately when I finally scored a point. After I exchanged a bow with my opponent and backed out of the ring, the members of the audience realized it was over and enthusiastic applause broke out. A woman in the front row was particularly happy for me.

After everyone had sparred, the yudansha (black belts) went to the office to tally scores and confer with one another about the candidates. I put my gear back in my bag, swigged a quick drink of water, and gave my daughter instructions about video-ing the awarding of my new rank.

The guy sitting in front of my daughter asked me, “Why did they make you fight two black belts?” His eyes were open quite wide. I sensed genuine curiosity and just a little concern.

I grinned hugely, grabbed one end of my brown belt, held it up, and said, “This is why,” then explained. For the previous test, this test, and for all future tests I have fought with and will fight with three karateka in succession. Ideally these would be three women roughly my same rank and ability. But June is a busy month for a lot of people, so that day we had only two adult female fighters. It just so happened they outrank me. I told the man that I’m used to competing against yudansha (black belts) in tournaments and assured him that I don’t mind. “It’s all good,” I said. I gave him a huge smile, a thumbs-up, and a nod to emphasize my point, then turned away. Duty called: I had to help a more senior brown belt teach the white belts how to receive their certificates and new belts.

I’ve written about gender and Karate on this blog a few times (click here for posts). We’ve come a long way but there are still some interesting social views about lady martial artists – particularly about slightly-lumpy middle-aged matrons who enjoy “a strange little hobby of acquiring bruises for funsies” (as blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it). I have to wonder how the audience would have reacted had I been a middle-aged man sparring with other men. What if I were a young man sparring with other young men? Ah – trials that push one’s body and spirit are to be expected in tests for men, right?  But not for middle-aged ladies.  Clearly the audience was surprised by my gumption.  Why is it so surprising to them that I can spar three rounds with two yudansha and live to tell the tale?

The answer to that is complex. Part of the audience’s surprise lies in perceptions of what life as a middle-aged matron is “supposed to” look like. Hint – it doesn’t involve getting punched in the nose.  I’m also guessing the audience didn’t really understand what they were seeing. Sparring at my level and above looks a lot different than what one usually sees from lower-ranked children. It was fast and intense – the three of us ladies were ferocious. Even my daughter admitted she was a little scared – and she knows that most days I come home unharmed. It was obvious that my opponents didn’t cut me any breaks, and neither did the judges or referee.  One or two audience members might have been thinking that they didn’t know it was even possible for someone my age, gender, and (yes, I’m going there) body type to do what I did that day.

What I’m hoping is that some of those parents will see what is possible for themselves – Karate, yes, of course (I love adult beginner students), but to be quite honest I’d be over the moon if even one person thought to himself or herself, “Wow – maybe I shouldn’t let my fear get in the way of starting my own business,” or “Maybe I should finish that project and see where it leads me,” or even, “I should get my flute out of the closet and start playing again.” I hope they saw the power of the human spirit and I hope they realize their own power.

You’d be surprised at what you can do when you put your mind to it. Surprise yourself today.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

9 thoughts on “Surprise!”

  1. Damn.

    Good for you.

    Why should you be cut any slack? You are a Karateka. It is fitting that you should have to spar with individuals slightly above your level in order to “prove your rank”, so to speak.

    Otherwise, what does your belt mean?

    You actually *earned* it.


    As my Shihan has instructed his lower ranking students, as an orange belt, during ju-kumite, I preferentially spar with the black belts. I was told the other day by one of them that I “was very hard to keep up with” – and that is absolutely my goal.

    Yes, I am 40. But I am aggressive and fast.

    I fight to win. Else, why spar?


    1. LOL, a woman after my own heart 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and for your kind words!

  2. You rock!

    So proud of you. Not because you are a woman, not because you are middle aged, not because you are a mum….you do all those things anyway….and do them well….but because you are a damn fine karateka.

    When we are in a gi we are equal…the more we believe it and live it, the more we make it truth.

    Congratulations on your nikyu. Hopefully we can speak soon.


  3. Congratulations! I bet you inspired lots of people today. It must have been fascinating to see it from the audiences view point, after the fact. I am also often surprised by people’s assumptions, and I think they are too sometimes. We all have per-conceived notions that we don’t always realize until we are confronted with them.

    I am also slightly envious that you compete. Our organization does not really do anything like that beyond our own school. It sounds challenging and fun. 🙂

    1. Hi, June! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ll bet if you were to ask your sensei(s) you could find out about attending local tournaments. Just be aware that Kyokushin is full contact (hey, if that’s your thing, OK – just be sure your blocking and body movement are top notch).

      1. Thank you for the suggestion. I think Karate starts sparring much earlier than we do, and competing (at an appropriate level) right away. We only just started sparring more recently, so I think I have much to learn first. 🙂
        However, it sounds like you also compete in kata, which we call forms. I hope to do that one day.

  4. Hi, June – yes, we start pretty early with kumite and competition. I do compete in both kata and kumite 🙂

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