Alberto Mateo is a quiet, unassuming 18-year-old, but a force to be reckoned with when he is in the "dojo" (karate school) or in competition around the country.
Mateo, a junior at Emerson High School, went late last week on a 10-day trip to Tokyo to compete against the best amateur Japanese karate competitors. Mateo and his sensei, or teacher, Sergio Dato, were invited by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the World Karate Organization (WKO) to represent Union City and New Jersey in an international competition.
Mateo is also a 2002 Presidential Sports Award winner, receiving a proclamation from President George W. Bush.
He has been studying karate for nine years. "It all started when I saw the Jean Claude Van Damme movie Bloodsport," he said. "From that point on, I went around in karate poses and tried to punch and kick people. My father finally said, 'let's get him to a karate class.' "
And for the Danbury, Connecticut native, a road of training and competition continues unabated. Since moving to Union City, Mateo has racked up an impressive array of awards, including consecutive gold medals from 1998 to 2002 in various state and regional competitions.
Karate, Japanese for "open hand," is, according to information at www.encarta.msn.com, the martial art of unarmed self-defense in which directed or focused blows of the hands and feet, accompanied by special breathing and shouts, are dealt from poised positions. More than a method of combat, karate emphasizes self-discipline, a positive attitude, and a high moral purpose. It is taught professionally at different levels, and under various Asian names, as a self-defense skill, a competitive sport, and a free-style exercise.
The art of karate began over 1,000 years ago in eastern Asia. It was initially intended as a monastic discipline but was adopted by Asian peasants to defend themselves against armed bandits. It was introduced to the Japanese in 1922. The art is chiefly associated with Japan but there are other forms such as Tae Kwon Do, which is the Korean version.
Mateo reminisced about his first time in an organized class. "I was really nervous when I started," said Mateo. "I found it to be a challenge but I stuck with it because of the discipline. Discipline is something that appeals to me."
Dato, the sensei of the Zenshikai Karate Dojo school in Union City, spoke glowingly of Mateo. "He was six or seven when he came to Union City," he said. "He was hard to handle then, and his father would come to every single practice. His father would sit and watch and get mad at him if he messed up or wasn't trying hard enough. His relationship with his father is a good one; that's why Alberto is so good now."
Mateo rose quickly through the ranks and has traveled extensively, competing in tournaments in Utah, Florida, Albany, and New York.
Mateo's trip to Japan was his first international trip. Dato said, "Over there, we're in their house. It's their rules and we have to play by them."
According to Dato, in Japan, the combatants in karate competitions are permitted to strike in the face, a practice expressly forbidden in the United States. The Reporter was shown the headgear that Mateo will be wearing to protect himself from blows from his Japanese opponents.
According to Dato, the school prepared Mateo for the possible a possible onslaught of blows to his head by "getting a group of four or five people to punch Alberto in the face [with headgear on] for 15 to 20 days. The idea was to see where his anger threshold was. Because over there [in Japan], you can't lose your temper. That's exactly what the Japanese want you to do. When you lose your focus, you lose the match."
Because of Mateo's exemplary attendance record, he was allowed to take days off from school and make up the work he missed. Dato said it wasn't easy to receive permission from the school for the time off.
"His principal kept putting off our meetings, for some reason," he said. "I sat in the principal's office one day for so long I made the receptionist nervous, and she got on her walkie-talkie to get the principal. I didn't care. I'll do whatever it takes for my kids."
Mateo is sure karate will figure into his future. "I see myself doing this for a long time. As long as my body can handle it."
When asked what else he had an interest in, he shrugged and said that he liked computers, but after some gentle prodding from Dato, Mateo became animated and admitted that he has an intense love of forensics and would like to be a medical examiner.