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Local martial arts academy draws students of all ages

Snow and chilling temperatures may be stalling the spring sports season, but inside Gary Mattevi's Martial Arts Academy, everything is in full swing. Children and adults alike are flooding into classes, and for many, karate has become a family event.

Snow and chilling temperatures may be stalling the spring sports season, but inside Gary Mattevi's Martial Arts Academy, everything is in full swing. Children and adults alike are flooding into classes, and for many, karate has become a family event.

"I started out as just a parent," Stephanie Stein said. "Both of our children started, then my husband started, and they all talked me into starting eventually."

Stein began taking classes in September and is in the lower level adult karate class. Since she started, Stein said she has gained confidence and improved her fitness at the same time.

"I love it," Stein said. "It's really challenging and fun. It doesn't get boring. I also practice yoga, so it's been a really good contrast to that."

Stein also has two children taking classes at Gary Mattevi's Martial Arts Academy. Her seven-year-old son, Colin, and five-year-old daughter, Daniela, are both in the children's program.

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When asked why she enjoyed class, Daniela smiled but couldn't quite pinpoint her reasons.

"I like the whole thing," she said.

Daniela began in the Mini Ninjas program when she was three years old and recently moved up to the children's program. When she began taking lessons she was a little scared, but not anymore -- even though she is still one of the youngest students in her class.

"I like when we do sparring," Daniela said.

All of the children in Daniela's class seemed to enjoy sparring, but karate offers students many benefits besides learning to kick and punch. In fact, the physical aspect of karate is only half of the sport.

Kim Mattevi, wife of Gary Mattevi and co-owner of the academy, said karate helps to instill many positive behaviors in children.

"Focus and self control are a big part of it, but I think it's school readiness also," Kim Mattevi said. "It (karate) helps them expel a lot of that energy they have. But it's into a focused direction, so they learn to work within that structure.

"I think that's really invaluable when they go to school. So often you hear that term 'cannot stay on task,' and that's just because their bodies are so (active) and they don't even know they're doing it."

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In karate class, the children get the chance to expend plenty of energy.

"It gets to the end of the class and kids are lying on the floor," Mattevi said. "That's when we know our work is done. Because they're so absorbed imitating the movements, they don't realize how hard they're working.

"It expands their abilities to push themselves and set goals, and they're individual goals too. That's what I like about karate, it's an individual sport but it can be a team thing too. They learn how to set goals for themselves and reach them."

Gary Mattevi had similar feelings.

"I think it helps develop an internal drive to achieve and excel," Gary Mattevi said.

He went on to say that it is not an option for students -- they must be focused and well-mannered in class. Those characteristics are inherent to karate, and students are expected to demonstrate them. The children appear to do very well with the courtesy aspect of karate, always bowing when appropriate and addressing their instructors as "sir" or "ma'am." Outside of class, however, the children will still be wily kids, Mattevi said.

Another skill all students can develop is leadership. Because karate has a ranking system (according to belts), senior students can run or assist with a class and help other students. Within the class students are expected to have self-respect, but they are also expected to show respect for each other. This attitude aids the learning environment, Mattevi said.

Patra Sevastiades has three children (7, 10 and 13 years old) who take classes, and she attends class herself. Sevastiades had only good things to say about the experience so far, especially as it concerned her children.

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"It's been great, the confidence, the focus -- the focus is amazing," Sevastiades said. "And the courtesy."

Sevastiades said when her seven-year-old has had a bad day at school, he looks forward to karate. It serves as a positive way to work through the day's frustrations via physical activity. Sevastiades also said the Mattevis always stressed the academy is meant to be a safe place.

"They said when we started, this will feel kind of like another home," Sevastiades said. "It sounded like a just sales pitch, but it really is like home."

Sevastiades also liked that fact that karate didn't focus as much on defeating opponents as other sports.

"Usually you're competing against yourself," Sevastiades said. "You're testing against a standard, not against anybody else. It's personal but also competitive against one's self."

Competing in tournaments is optional, so the main focus is on how a student is doing on his or her own basis. Students are evaluated in a realistic way to help them get better, but there is always a positive underpinning, Sevastiades said.

Indeed, students take something away from the class and gain more than just a more fit body. That may help explain why more adults are getting into karate. Kim Mattevi said the classes tend to be dominated by children, but recently, adults have been signing up in greater numbers.

Often, parents watch classes and then decide to take classes themselves. Gary Mattevi said adults typically take classes to get in shape (lifestyle change) or simply because it's something they had always wanted to do but never got around to. Mattevi said the difference between going to a health club and attending karate classes is that in karate, you are learning skills.

"You reach something inside you that has been untapped," Gary Mattevi said.

For Stein, karate lessons have certainly helped her reaching an untapped part of herself. "It's fun, especially as a woman. It's empowering," Stein said. "It's been really fun to overcome that hesitancy you have (be physical). It's a lot more enjoyable than I would have expected."

While Stein hasn't taken any specific self defense classes, she has learned much during her karate class. Stein said students learn about moves and breakaways but also learn verbal tactics to keep a situation from escalating.

And for Stein, and many others, karate can also serve as a common bond for a family.

"It has become a family affair," Stein said. "That's really nice because we all have something to share that way.

"We want to be a family of black belts."

This Saturday, students from the academy will be participating in the Spirit of the Arts Tournament held at Esko High School. Students of all ages and skill levels will be taking part in the tournament. The doors open at 10 a.m. and competition will run from 11 a.m. to roughly 3:30 p.m.

For more information call (715) 394-5425 or visit http://www.gmmaa.com .

Emily Kram covers sports. Call her at (715) 395-5018 or e-mail ekram@superiortelegram.com .

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