By Joe Anuta
The Al Oerter Recreation Center in Flushing looked like a martial arts movie scene Sunday, when hundreds of people cheered on children as young as 4 chopping and kicking their way through a tournament sponsored by the city Parks Department.
Richmond Hill resident Devin Sanchez, 8, hopped in a circle around the wooden floor of the gym, fists raised in front of his sweating face. His brow was furrowed and lips puckered outward around his mouth guard. Cheered on by family, he first kicked his padded foot into the air, probably a diversion, before lunging in to punch his opponent.
“A tournament like this is great for the kids and the community,” said Susan Friedman, of Parks. “Martial arts is good for the mind, body and spirit.”
Friedman’s husband, Rick Diaz, is the recreation director for the Al Oerter center and a 10th-degree black belt. Diaz has hosted the free tournament for five years, and it always draws a crowd.
About 500 boys and girls from 4 to 17 years old competed in six age groups and two categories — sparring with an opponent and executing formal, choreographed moves in front of judges. The gym was packed with spectators from all over the tri-state area. They either watched from the rails of an elevated running track above the action or thronged the gym floor, forming human rings around the matches.
Juan Jimenez runs a Jamaica school called Born to Win Martial Arts, and was refereeing some of the fights.
He says both young and old can benefit from learning traditional martial arts — even 4-year-olds.
“It’s about a way of life,” he said, echoing several coaches about the merits of martial arts like discipline and focus. “If you’re not becoming a better person, then the philosophy is not living within you.”
Jimenez not only teaches the mechanics of a Japanese-style karate at his school, he also inspects his students’ report cards and requires them to write essays before advancing toward the rank of black belt. Schools in the Jamaica area send him troubled students to learn self-control through karate and meditation, he said.
Other schools that treat martial arts as a sport tout four-year black belt programs, but Jimenez said he does not promote anyone to black belt until they show they have improved their character as well as their form. One of his students has been studying for eight years without attaining the sought-after distinction.
“I’ve lost students because of it,” he said. “But the ones who have stayed are truly great. They understand what it means.”
Jimenez dashed off to award some of his students trophies as the matches wore on.
Katherine Quito, 14, is a student at MS 217 and said she enjoys studying Korean Tae Kwon Do for the thrill.
“I love it!” she said, removing her padded headgear after a match. “You can feel how exciting it is.”
Two of New York City’s most famous martial artists, Jadi Tention and Ross Levine, were on hand to encourage the children and speak about the ancillary benefits of learning self-defense. They are both karate world champions.
“You’re not teaching them violence,” Tention said. “You’re teaching them a life skill.”
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.