A group of Union City’s youngest martial artists recently won gold in a state championship.
Eleven members of the Union City Karate Recreation Program, which is open to city residents ages 6 to 14, placed in the top three in their particular competitions at the New Jersey State Amateur Athletic Union Karate Championship, held in Madison, N.J. on March 22. They went up against 240 athletes from all over the state.
Since each kid won a medal, they have all qualified to compete in the upcoming Northeast Super Regional Championship in Albany this May.
Sergio Dato, who runs the free program and also manages his own karate studio on Bergenline Avenue, said that he and his fellow instructors selected the team from a pool of nearly 200 kids who show up every Saturday to practice martial arts.
“You have to work hard; you have to show up to practice; you have to show respect,” said Dato. “There are a lot of things I take into consideration. Manners are very important, too.”
The team brought home 18 gold, 11 silver, and nine bronze medals, but Dato said he tries to teach the kids that winning is not everything.
“We empower the kids, and when they walk out [of here], they are better than before,” said Dato. “The medals and all that stuff, that’s secondary.”
He added that he is not trying to make professional karate experts out of the kids but help them grow as people.
“I want them to be a good accountant, good school teacher, but use their karate training to be more sharp, to be prepared for life,” said Dato. “If that happens, I am the happiest guy in the world.”
For now, he said, it is important that the kids have something to do to keep them healthy and out of trouble.
The kids’ parents agreed.
“Everybody is so excited to be doing something different,” said Yaneth Ortiz, whose daughter, Carolina, is in the program.
Fabiana Canteros, whose son, Bruno, practices with the group, said that the program has taught the kids discipline. She said her son now focuses more on getting his homework done so he can go to karate.
The kids said they joined karate to learn something new.
“I was really interested in it,” said Joseph Respicio, 11, “and I thought that by doing this, I would learn new skills and I would be bettering myself.”
“I wanted to learn how to defend myself,” said Kevin Ramirez, 8.
Cynthia Figueroa, 12, said that participating in the program has also helped the kids practice working as a team.
Taking part in the championship, the kids said, was challenging and exciting all at the same time.
“At first, I felt nervous because when I knew that I was going to go in the tournament, I was always counting the days, and that made me even more nervous every single day,” said Kimberly Perez, 11. She added that while she practiced her moves, her kicks and punches, with her teammates, she felt more at ease about the competition.
Mark Ulloa, 14, said that he also had had his reservations about the championship, but that when his name was called to get up and compete, his nervousness subsided.
“The moment they call you, that’s when you pick up all your nerves,” he said.
“It was the first tournament for most of us,” said Respicio. “As I was competing, I tried to focus and concentrate on winning and I tried my best.”
Kevin Torres, 9, said he did the same.
“I am putting everything I got into it when I do the tournament,” he said.
More experienced team members, like the team captain, Dixie Dato, 11, who has been in karate class since she was 4 years old, said the championship was like practice.
“It wasn’t hard because you practice a lot for months,” she said. “All of us have practiced for months already. It is just easy because you go inside a competition and do your thing.”
The team had been preparing for the championship since January. The program, now in its first year, started in October and will run until May. Kids in the program must be Union City residents and must have signed up during the fall registration period.
“If the kids show talent, we are going to teach them the best karate in the world.” – Sergio Dato
“Everybody has to have access to good training,” said Dato. “If the kids show talent, we are going to teach them the best karate in the world.”
Amanda Staab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.