I ended it all with a simple side kick; it took nothing fancy to make me, Chris Aldridge, the state champion that day.

Going into the Raleigh, North Carolina State Karate Open that hot June morning in 2000, my head sensei had told us to not expect much. After all, we were hardcore, old school TaeKwonDo. We trained to fight on the street, not to win tournaments. But that was one of the defining things that allowed martial arts to change my life; it gave me amazing confidence, believing I could do anything. Even though I was an unknown, typical southern boy from rural Thomasville, and my dojo headquarters was near the backroads of a micro town called Wallburg, I remember the days when there was nothing I wouldn’t face head on. Nothing was out of reach for me. All the many years growing up in a home of poverty, abuse and neglect seemed inconsequential. I was made new when I put on my first uniform and stepped into a new home.

The early morning drive into the city was dazzling. The white sky and blazing fire turned North Carolina into the Land of the Rising Sun, or so it appeared. I just knew it was a divine sign that favor was upon my people and I, but of course, those were probably the hopes of a romantic teenager. The sun didn’t have time to worry about me, and the Gods may have had more important things to do than concern themselves with a tournament in one small corner of the universe. But for me at the time, it provided somewhat of an ordained mindset, and put me at ease with the beauty of the state.

My belt had turned blue with red stripes by the time the convention center hosted the state event, and my rank was just one among many, so I would have to compete against a select number of fighters in my own division. If I walked away the victor, it would be against other blue belts or close-in-ranks who showed up, of which there were fortunately enough for competition. I had the opportunity I needed.

There were two events in my division, forms and sparring. I decided to compete in both. Although, I wasn’t expecting high achievement in forms due to the fact that I didn’t have complete control. Part of kata competition is gaining a good opinion from the judges. One may think your kata was spectacular, the other not so much. But I was a young fighter with a lot of natural talent and good flowing limbs. I ended up greatly impressing the judges with my compilation of inverted ridge hands, frontal assault kicks, and palm heel uppercuts. The most points were surprisingly awarded to me.

However, sparring was my bread and butter. I loved fighting head to head, and now I could control where the points went entirely. When asked how to win in a karate tournament, I often reply, Well, you just have to hit people.

When the final battle came, I stood against one more challenger, and it came down to a final point up for grabs. During the short break we were allowed before the final confrontation, I paced back and forth in contemplation and heavy breathing. The pressure was great. Many people were watching, tensions stretched to their limits, and my blood slamming into the walls of my heart harder than ever. This was it. I was either going to win or lose. I would either go home in gold or silver.

We took our stances, hands up, and eyes connected. Kick, punch, block, block, kick, winner! The referee raised his hand to me as I brought my back leg around and planted a side kick into my opponent’s stomach. The gold in both events was mine.

Standing on the central column at the award ceremony, I was only a few mere feet off the ground, but I felt like I was on top of the world when those beautiful blue and gold medals were hung around my neck. My teachers, I believe, had never been more proud of me, although it didn’t register at the time that I was a state champion. It still needed to sink in, but martial arts had brought me to my first major achievement in life. No one could ever again say that Chris Aldridge was average, coming from a line of commoners and failures as had always been the legacy of my immediate family. I broke the trend of being a statistic that day.

But many ages later, I also found out that the years pass swiftly and old glories fade if you don’t keep them shined and polished. If someone had told me on that very day as I walked out into the bright sun with medal shimmering on me, that eighteen years later, I would be sitting on a lonely park bench, a thousand miles away in northern Illinois, thinking about how I used to be a champion, and that my once vibrant dojo wouldn’t even be a memory in the North Carolina winds anymore, I would have responded the same way all teenagers do, by thinking that I know everything.

By the summer of 2018, there I was, sure enough. Living in my fourth city since I had moved to Illinois, once again depressed, unemployed, overweight and no future in sight. All that remained of my awards that victorious day was a single lonely gold medal with no necklace, its color nearly all faded. Only the old, decaying letters still visible were able to still identify it, State Games of North Carolina Championships. I didn’t even have my gi or a single belt anymore, and I had not laid eyes upon the inside of a dojo for over a decade, let alone my own. It was now an old, vacant space for lease and my teachers didn’t even live in the area anymore. I was a displaced degenerate, not even a shadow of my former self. I can’t count how many times I thought about just going downtown and jumping off the bridge into the river, or hose-feeding my exhaust pipe into my car. One day, I did actually walk down to the river. In order to get to the actual shore, however, you have to descend a treacherous hill of rocks and boulders. Upon reaching the bottom, you’re right on the waterline. There isn’t an actual sandy landmass. Rather, the hill of rocks just disappears into the waves, and you must stand on the border of it.

There I paused for several minutes, trying to stand comfortably on the rocky terrain, looking out across the rapids and gazing into the murky deep, wondering how quickly it could take my life if I just floated away in it at that moment. Then I looked back up to the top of the cliff. I could climb to the top like I had done before in my life, or I could give up. But the guy I knew in his younger days never gave up a minute in his life, nor had he ever been content with being another statistic, so I pulled myself out.

Soon, as the Gods told me, all talent exists for a reason, and one of mine is in the way of hand and foot, the way of life for the martial artist. This was a great way that I could feel important again, think of myself as having a valuable place in the world, and restore my health.

The only difference now was that I didn’t want to return to a dojo. I wanted to fight on my own representation and go the distance with my life finally, the way martial arts had always taught me to.

I ordered a new gi and belt, both black this time, and a new Moo Duk Kwan patch to represent my main style. Unlike my old patch that was blue and gold, this one was bright white, red and green. It was like my new appearance was shinier compared to my old traditional white gi and colors that matched everyone else’s for the most part. I felt like a new man and trained regularly not only with re-establishing my best kata and weapons forms, but also fighting in general and getting down to a reasonable weight that would allow my body to compete again to the best of its ability. I ran two miles a day, from South Beloit, Illinois to Beloit, Wisconsin, driven by the determination and confident perspective I had once possessed on life. Before I knew it, my training brought my mind and body back into line with the great feeling it had in the days of old.

Martial arts will always be one of the best ways to train your body because it moves every part of it. The constant exercise also kills fat, and releases endorphins that fight depression. And because you are making progress, you naturally do things like change your diet in order to help maintain it, generally cutting down on your general food intake per each meal. Each part of your training takes you to the next necessary level by nature. You end up feeling better and better about yourself at the end of each training period.

Martial arts is a way of life entirely, that works all parts of your life because life is literally a daily battle in all that you do, whether it be a battle of the mind or body; whether you’re talking about the fight to better yourself, improve your health, get somewhere in life, improve your relationships, or as simple as not letting an illness take you over. This is why martial arts has been a universal asset to so many diverse people. And it has no shelf life. It can always be reinstituted.

I decided to once again take my stance and fight. There’s no reason not to. It’s the way the martial artist should live. To lose it is to lose yourself.

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