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Black belts or bust

Ryan Slabaugh

“This isn’t a run around and kick match,” he said. “This is a stand and kickbox fight.”

The group of 8-to-15-year-old boys and girls nodded their heads. The parents in the audience clapped. When Master Bayley speaks, everyone listens, especially when the instructor has eight master black belts from as far as San Francisco behind him, arms folded, as judges.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “Nationally, one out of every 10,000 kids who start martial arts makes black belt.”

To become a black belt, a student must show proficiency in everything from jujitsu to weapons training to boxing. They train on these skills as red belts for 10 weeks. Not everyone makes it. Bayley compares it to spring training, and he informed the 17 athletes that just because you’re learning the moves doesn’t mean you’ll earn the black belt.

Saturday, the field had narrowed to 11. The kids took turns kicking and punching a stationary floor bag and in the process, the judges noted the expertise of the moves.

For anyone under 15 years old, they earned a junior black belt – symbolizing that they knew about a third of the required moves for a full black belt. As they mature, they earn degrees on that junior belt until they have a full belt, and then they earn degrees –like Bayley – for as long as they stay dedicated to the sport.

The fact that all 11 cleared the hurdle Saturday, Bayley said, is quite extraordinary.

“Everyone’s going to pass,” said Bayley, who will be tested for his seventh degree in a week. “They all exhibited the skills and excelled in those skills. That’s fairly unusual, frankly.”

Vail Mountain School freshman Mike Schindel, a 15-year-old, finally earned his full black belt Saturday. For the rest of his life, he will be able to add degrees, become a master and teach. Schindel already assists Master Bayley one class a week.

“It’s my part-time job now,” said Schindel, who’s been practicing martial arts for seven years. “I practice twice a week.”

Schindel, at his age, is ahead of the game.

“To be a full black belt you have to be a 16-year-old or the meanest 15-year-old on the planet,” Bayley said. “He’s (Schindel) a brilliant young martial artist, but he doesn’t have the physical strength to stand toe-to-toe with adults. He’ll get that as he gets older.”

The final stage for the junior black belts was a double-elimination kickboxing tournament divided into classes. Everyone was awarded a trophy for the full contact, above-the-waist event. The goal was not only to beat the opponent, but to do so while showing a range of moves worthy of black belt status. They wear a mouth piece, head pads, rib pads, leg pads, boxing gloves and feet pads.

For Zach Taylor and Ellie Freedman, their performances were worth a second degree junior black belt (meaning they have accomplished two-thirds of the criteria for a full belt).

The rest, including Sophe Friedman, Bo Dwier, Andrea Sanchez, Coco Fritzlan, Olivia Fauland, Jason Sirotkin, Rob Wear and Pearl Burkham, the years of rainbow-colored belts are behind them.

“It’s about a four-year endeavor to get a junior black belt,” Bayley said. “They must be able to show extremely good skills at a number of different techniques.”

The tournament comprises three 30-second rounds. During one, a young girl was kicked in the face after sneezing. Her opponent apologized. Their Master told them to continue. They finished and the judges conferred. The winner advanced. The loser took a seat. Master Bayley addressed the crowd:

“These kids show a lot more heart than most adults I know,” he said. “They deserve nothing but our respect.”

The young martial arts experts, exhausted and some with bloody noses, answered in unison: “Yes, master.”


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