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What Karate Really Meant To Me During Lockdown: Project 6th Dan

There is absolutely no doubt that this has been a most unique and challenging twelve months. Nobody could have predicted what 2020 was going to do to the world, with the Coronavirus, and the tragic loss of life that has resulted around the world.


And sadly, no other European nation has been affected as badly as the UK, with over 50,000 lives lost. The very real and tragic repercussions on all those loved ones who have passed has been colossal, and with the second lockdown of the year presently underway, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on just how vital Karate has been to my own well-being throughout this year.


Reflecting on everything, if I had to score just how important Karate has been to me over all the trials and tribulations that this tough year has bestowed out of a maximum score of ten, I would have to score it a 12. Yes, I accept that is slightly ridiculous but it has been a crazy year, where I have had to battle a very aggressive cancer, that required life-saving emergency surgery, that had to be done privately as my original NHS operation scheduled for March 24th was cancelled at 18.00 the night before it was due, as all the Corona patients had taken all the ICU beds.


Luckily for me, family and friends helped me find funds at a time when all the banks were shut, and the operation went ahead. Frankly it was miraculous, looking back.


It was a very tough operation but the two expert surgeons were optimistic that after 5-and-a-half-hours and some 60 stitches, they had cut the cancer out of me in the three places it had invaded.


I was as a vulnerable person locked down and unable to leave my home for the duration of the lockdown period. My recovery was much swifter than anticipated, mostly because I had tried to keep as fit as possible in preparation for the operation. Within three weeks, I was gingerly out in the garden walking through basics and kata, and at that point I realised that I needed a goal, and incentive to keep me motivated, sane and alive.


So I duly chose one, quite simply I wanted to take my 6th Dan black belt grading. I had been eligible in March and had the offer to apply for the grade by applying to NAKMAS, the governing body. This required formally applying for the 6th Dan grade that would require a CV and then this would be submitted to the seniors of the governing body who would then assess each case and then bestow the grade if it met the criteria.


However, I did not want to go down that path, as I wanted to prove a point firstly to myself, and secondly to anybody else who might have cancer and was having surgery and chemotherapy that such challenges, if you adopt the correct mindset, should not stop you achieving anything.


Yes, there were real physical challenges to be faced especially with the chemotherapy but I knew what they were and I knew that I could work around them. But, for me more crucial was the motivational stimulation that I needed as a highly vulnerable person who was only allowed to either go to hospital for treatment or my surgery for medicines and stoma bags.


So, I contacted Sensei Pete Manning, 7th Dan from the Traditional Shotokan Karate Association (TSKA) and asked him if he would be prepared to grade me for my 6th Dan. Being the decent, caring man that he is he said that he would talk to Shihan Joe Ellis, 8th Dan, the chair of NAKMAS and see if this rare request could be accommodated.


Consequently, Sensei Pete sent me a video of a syllabus that he prepared and from that point on I was frankly a man possessed. I started to practise the syllabus every day in the garden, I also landscaped my garden so I could train on a new patio I had installed. In addition, when I was allowed, I hired my local village hall so I could practise the whole grading in my gi in real time, I then filmed it every time, so I could work on faults and weaknesses.


To improve my fitness, we brought a smart turbotrainer for my bike and signed up to Zwift, a software package that allows people to compete on different circuits all over the world. This really does get you fit, and brings out any competitive streak you might have lurking inside you.


Every time I had a blood test, or had the several hours of chemo, or injected myself in the stomach, or took the steroids, I kept thinking to myself, this is the challenge and as soon as I got home from hospital I would train.


One day after I had the chemotherapy balloon removed, I went into the garden and did all 27 katas of the Shotokan system done back to back in 24 degrees. It was boiling, and I completed them all in 54 minutes.


I deliberately created my own targets and pressure, mostly because unlike every other Dan grading I had attempted before, I did not have my Sensei, Shihan Cyril Cummins, 8th Dan, training me, scolding me, encouraging me, breaking me down then rebuilding me.


This I had to do on my own, so I did.


And if anything, that was probably the toughest battle, missing that man who guided me and inspired me, but I recalled all the things that he taught me and used his memory, and his legacy as that voice in the back of my head.


And week by week, day by day, I found myself slowly getting to a place I wanted and indeed needed to be. Sensei Manning had made it very clear that 6th Dan was a very senior grade, and I had asked to do this, and quite rightly the grading would be impartial and based purely on delivery.


No sympathy for cancer and all that malarkey. This was precisely what I wanted and my eyes were wide open that I had to be fit enough, sharp enough, technically competent and knowledgeable about Karate and its history to deliver to a standard that was good enough.


I often told myself that if I fail, then I will simply train harder, and keep going back until I am worthy, after all I had failed enough Dan gradings in the past, and simply kept picking myself up, dusting down the disappointment and failure and persevering until I passed. And I always had Shihan there next to me guiding me and inspiring me.


Finally, on Saturday 26th September, Yvi and I drove down to Mere in Wiltshire, where I did an excellent hour and half training course with Sensei Manning and his senior Dan grades. He focused the session on my kihon combinations, which were complex, technical and challenging. After we finished, Sensei Manning and 5 of his senior Dan grades got changed into their formal blazers, shirt, and trousers and suddenly there was a very professional and serious panel with a desk set up with the Japanese rising sun flag and the Union Jack.


Everyone not part of the grading panel was asked to leave the dojo, and suddenly there was just me, the panel, and Yvi who Sensei Manning allowed to stay and watch.


I remember thinking "Right mate, you asked for this, so you better do your best". What gave me great comfort and confidence was the fact that for the course and grading I wore Shihan Cummins' belt that was very kindly given to me by Mrs Dorien Cummins, Shihan's widow, ably supported by my very dear friend Sensei Sue Hession.


The last thing that I did as I took my place by myself in the dojo, drenched in the sunshine was just to touch the belt and say to myself: "Don’t let Shihan or yourself down. Focus and do your best."


The grading itself was demanding and very professional. Sensei Manning pushed me hard as he said that he would, in some ways it is now a blur, looking back. Gradings are a strange experience.


All the effort, sweat, time, and all the other factors that come to play, create a pressure cooker of emotions that you simply have to control. Indeed that is as much part of the test as the physical exam itself.


Funnily enough, when Sensei Manning concluded the grading, I honestly was not sure if I was going to pass. Nothing was given away. I was asked to wait in the reception area and then I was called back in, and then he very kindly told me that I had passed, as seen on the special announcement video.


It was a very emotional moment for all sorts of reasons. I had achieved my ambition and my goal. My Sensei, I felt, was very close, and I could feel my emotions racing as I attempted to keep them in check, then a great feeling of joy and even more a great sense of relief.


I had set out to raise two fingers towards cancer, chemotherapy and COVID and now due to the amazing help and support from many g

ood and kind people we had collectively achieved it.


It was not my success, it was all those great folk at the NHS, the Karate family, and particularly Sensei Pete Manning, Sensei Bill Gorthy, and Sensei John Euden from TSKA, and Shihan Joe Ellis from NAKMAS, and of course my own family, especially my amazing partner Yvi, but also my daughter Abigail, and of course Shihan Cyril Cummins.


So, remember my friends, never give up, never give in!


Keep safe and well


Austin


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