Curtis learns to balance mind, body and spirit
“Karate has changed my life completely.”
For 17-year-old Tahoe-Truckee High School junior Kirsten Curtis, this statement comes rather matter-of-factly, considering she has spent between three and five days per week studying karate for the past five-and-a-half years.
“It gets to be part of the way you are,” she said.
Though Curtis, a probationary black belt, can easily drop a man twice her size with little effort, don’t think the life of a karate student resembles Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon or any number of movies which popularized offshoots of the ancient martial art.
Curtis said all black belts go through a probationary period of one year to ensure the students don’t get into fights or go around bragging about their abilities.
Karate is about avoiding fights at all costs and walking away from confrontations; it is about taking the minimal efforts necessary to quell an antagonistic situation.
In accordance with International Karate Federation principles, students vow to “not brag about my skill or use it maliciously,” and to “cultivate a gentle heart” as their skills increase.
“I find myself less eager to get into situations now and, when I see other people going into one, I think, ‘you’re so dumb, why do you do that?'” she said.
To Curtis, a 4.3 GPA student, a big part of the study of karate is what it teaches her about everyday life.
“It makes me look at the way I deal with people differently,” she said. “One philosophy is Zan Shin; the translation is ‘perfect finish.’ Everything you do is worth doing correctly and completely.”
And with her high grades, Advanced Placement classes, involvement in a new venturing group and recent crowning as Miss Truckee, Curtis is busier than ever doing things correctly and completely.
For one, she aims toward being accepted at Stanford University when she graduates from Truckee in 2000.
Then there is the karate, to which she has devoted so many years of her life.
Karate’s precise origins are unknown because of codes of secrecy, but it is widely held that as far back as the sixth century B.C. an Indian named Bodhidharma traveled to China and developed a philosophy known today as Zen.
In the Honan Province, Bodhidharma developed a form of combat which combined yoga and kshatriya; including an off-shoot which used no weapons. This evolved to become what is known today as karate.
To attain full black belt, or First Dan status, students must complete a rigorous and limit-stretching test of sheer physical endurance and mental anguish that makes military boot camp look like a Sunday stroll in the park.
As prelude to her big test, Curtis endured a 48-hour weekend two summers ago in order to attain the first level of black belt.
First, students took a four-hour written test which asked them what they would do in certain situations.
Then, there was a Japanese vocabulary test followed by the test of katas.
Every basic student of karate learns a kata, or series of movements, but the black belt knows dozens. Curtis said she had to repeatedly perform 30 katas to Sensei Will Durham’s satisfaction.
Aside from just performing them, students also had to tell their meanings, then create their own kata.
“A lot goes into making one up, because the moves have to make sense and you have to wind up in the same place you started,” she said.
Adding to that, there was no talking allowed during the two-day test. At a restaurant, Curtis said she had to point to menu items to communicate what she wanted.
The test continued throughout the night when students, who had slept two hours, were awakened and made to perform the 30 katas over and over again, then run around a baseball field.
They were then given four more hours of sleep before having to repeat the tasks.
Part of qualifying for a black belt is competition in tournaments, and Curtis has competed in the best.
In 1994, she won a bronze medal at the All-Hawaii Championship, a tournament she calls “the most difficult ever,” and went on to win the 1995 Nationals at the novice level.
The pivotal moment in her karate career, she said, was in 1996 when she won a silver at Nationals and a bronze at the Junior Olympics in New Orleans.
Between sparring and katas, Curtis said katas are, by far, her favorite event at competitions.
She also has a passion for teaching karate to younger students.
“I’ve learned a lot from that, like how important patience is when you are teaching,” she said. “Wil Durham is a great guy and, as a teacher, he’s very patient, which I think is key.”
But a life of striving for perfection can be hard.
Curtis said she regrets not being able to spend more time with her friends. A secret desire of hers has been to learn ballroom dancing, but karate has interfered every time the class has been offered.
She looks forward to a time when she can do these things, but for now, is glad to continue in the way which has brought her so much success.
Though she loves Truckee, Curtis said she wants to move away and get out into the world to experience different cultures. She got a brief glimpse at Europe when, a couple of years ago, she studied abroad in Sweden, teaching herself Swedish before doing so.
She hope to major in Business Psychology and International Relations with an eye toward becoming a representative for a company which would allow her to travel.
The hardest question for Curtis is what one thing she has learned most from karate. After thinking for a minute, she calmly responds, “One of the biggest things karate has taught me is humility.”
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