Sunday, March 27, 2011


     For a complete story about how I began training in Judo, click
     This is an article I published in Mobility International—an online magazine focusing on the stories of peoples with disabilities who travel—detailing  my experiences arriving to Japan and joining the Shishinkai Judo association of Sensei Masamitsu Haga.  It would be next to impossible to recreate the article in this blog with the same impact as when I wrote for the magazine. 

    To watch an interview Fox News conducted with me at a Judo Tournament in Grand Rapids, Michigan, click

     AS I wrote in “Fighting the Good Fight” (What was I thinking with that title… *shudders*) I began Judo by pure coincidence.  When my neighbor in Japan found out that I practiced Aikido, he invited me to try Judo at the club where he trained.  From the first time I sparred, I was hooked.  Judo combined the aspects of the martial arts I had come to respect—an emphasis on balance, speed and the use of an opponents energy against them—with a competitive spirit similar to that of wrestling.  Furthermore, the amazing group of people who joined together to form the Shishinkai association became the best and tightest network of friends I could have hoped to have in Japan. 
     Though I credit Haga Sensei for promoting such an atmosphere of encouragement and support within his dojo, I believe it speaks as a credit to the art of Judo that I have found the same Budo spirit in clubs throughout the world.  At the
in Tokyo, I met and trained with people from around the world.  From the Venezuelan paralympic team, French and German teams and instructors from Israel, Trinidad and Egypt, I found that regardless of the nationality or the language, judo players want to help eachother improve. 
     Someone once described Judo to me as, “Interupting a fall with a throw”.  Judo is truly one of the most elegant demonstrations of the martial arts.  One seeks to induce movement in an opponent and, then, uses the opponent’s motion to generate a throw.  Balance and speed are crutial.  Though we use these exact principals and even some of the same throws in Aikido, Aikido is a partner-based art that relies on cooperation.  Judo, on the other hand, requires a yet deeper understanding of the fundamentals of momentum because the opponent, far from cooperating, is doing his or her best to prevent the throw. 
      Although it is true that muscle can play a roll in Judo, relying on muscle will result in a mockery of the art.  I have been thrown across the width of a room by men much smaller and less muscular precisely when I have tried to use my strength to advantage.  This, however, is why I love Judo.  A clear demonstration of one’s knowledge in the art can usually be seen by who is left standing. 

Friday, March 25, 2011


     My first real introduction to the martial arts and Japanese culture came through my training in the Aikido club of the University of Michigan.  Due to the many times I have moved, I have studied under a variety of instructors in several styles of aikido.  To date, I hold rank with four associations; no one of which has recognized my time with the others.  But though Aikido is sometimes a highly insular martial art, I believe my wide exposure has benefited me.  Where I lack high rank in any one association—I hold the rank of 2kyu with Birankai of North America and the Japanese Aikikai associations—I have learned much about what I look for in a good instructor… and what I look for in a great one.  Most importantly, I have had the opportunity to consider what Aikido means to me, personally. 

     This being said, I consider myself to be always and above all others a member of the
Dojo of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  My instructor is David Mata, under Keith Moore sensei, under T K Chiba Sensei.


         What is Aikido? 

     You can research Aikido on the internet and discover much more than I could ever hope to explain here on this blog.  My purpose is to tell you what the martial arts mean to me: my feelings, interpretations and reasons for training.

     I believe patience is the word that best describes Aikido at this moment in my life.  Patience is a powerful virtue both in and out of the dojo.  It embodies control, awareness and self discipline.  In an art such as Aikido, we train with a wide range of people of varying levels of skill and physical ability.  When we rush into a situation, we are liable to overpower our partner or, in turn, be overpowered ourselves.  Patience is required to find the “path of least resistance,” so to speak and prevent us from immediately relying upon muscle.  One habit we have in the western world is our reliance on brute strength. 
      This does not mean that speed and force hold no place in aikido.  We practice patiently now so that we understand, later, how to apply techniques with greater power.  In a given class, you might learn one technique—you may even learn that technique perfectly—but what you have learned is one variation of a technique in a universe where there are a thousand incarnations of that movement; you have learned the technique in the setting of a dojo from a specific attack.  Aikido requires years of practice in order that the body learn to react instinctually, from a variety of attacks and in a variety of situations.  This might make it seem as though “repetition” were the most important key to developing Aikido.  Repetition, however, implies a mindless series of movements.  Patience, on the other hand, requires the mind’s active engagement in an activity. 

     The energy in Aikido can be illustrated by thinking of the movement of water.  Water, when presented with an obstacle, seeks the path of least resistance.  Water does not draw back, nor push outward.  Rather, it maintains a constant pressure in response to that which is exuded upon itself.  A wave may be gentle or highly destructive, according to the power of the circular energy which generates its movement.  Similarly, Aikido depends upon circular movements to generate techniques. 

     This has been a brief introduction to my thoughts on an art I have studied for nearly nine years.  In the future I will write about more specific aspects of Aikido or possibly revisit ideas I have mentioned here. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


     Over the years, I have been approached by the parents of several blind children who have asked me my advice on raising a child with a visual impairment.  I have always stressed one theme above all others:

   Get Your Blind Child Involved in Sports

    I sincerely believe that wrestling changed my life more fundamentally than any of the other incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I have undertaken.  It was a result of the combined influences of my coaches, teammates and even opponents and there is no reason my experience should remain an isolated one.

     There are several reasons for which I emphasize the role of sports in a blind child’s development.  On the most basic level, blind children are frequently over-protected and this, unfortunately, results in a lack of exercise.  Too often, parents would prefer to keep their visually impaired son or daughter safe at home rather than outside running around where they might trip and fall.  A few bumps and bruises--even a broken bone--are important hallmarks of a normal childhood.  Even more important than the exercise, however, is the socialization which sports provide.  While there are clubs and groups, such as Go Ball, for blind children to play with one another, I stress again and again the need for blind children to interact with their sighted peers.  This not only helps to integrate the child into a more realistic world, it exposes sighted children to a different way of life. 
     Yes, a blind player will have a slight disadvantage.  Like it or not, a visual impairment is somewhat of a setback.  The sooner a child is introduced into such situations, though, the sooner they will learn to adapt and find their own solutions to problems of inequality. 

     Wrestling was crucial in my life because it gave me both self-confidence and a strong, supportive team.  The illness I suffered as a child left me very over-weight.  Some of the medicines I had taken included steroids, while the months of hospitalization and bed rest left little room for physical activity.  On top of this, classmates I had known in first and second grade were unsure how to deal with my blindness when I finally returned to my home district.  I felt both ugly and isolated. 
     In my first season on the wrestling team, I lost around 20lbs.  There is nothing so self-affirming for a young man than the loss of weight and toning of muscle.  Furthermore, I now had a hobby, something to do in the evenings besides homework and television. 
     As the season progressed and teammates watched me endure the same strenuous practices as they themselves were, they began to view me less as a person with a disability and more as a fellow wrestler.  This change was both subtle and highly significant, as I had found it very difficult to relate to my classmates.  No one ever asked me to hang out on the weekends my freshman year of high school.  It wasn’t until I joined the wrestling team that I began to go out and spend time with people from school. 

      No discourse on wrestling could be complete without mentioning the important role coaches play in the lives of young athletes.  This was especially acute in my case.  My high school wrestling coach was one of the first people to demand more from me than I believed I could give.  He refused to accept excuses and taught me that I shouldn’t accept them either.  Something I carry with me to this day is my coach’s admonition that people with disabilities have to help themselves because, sometimes, no one else will. 
[This has been a loose translation of my coach’s rough way of speaking; his actual words went more along the lines of, “Nick, life screwed you.  Go do something about it.”] 

      It’s difficult to understand these words out of context.  My coach was speaking to a young man much more timid and self- defeatist than the adult who is now writing this blog.  In a nutshell: I have every bit as much right to play on the monkey-bars as you do.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Training History

In later posts I will give a more complete explanation of the principle arts which I practice, but I would first like to give an overall summary of my training history. 

       Every great basketball player had their inspiration; all the best writers have their muses; each wonderful teacher had their wonderful taughter.  From an early age I, too, had four mentors that drove me to strive my very best.  Yes, like the generation that grew with me, I was obsessed with the Ninja Turtles. 
Were they Chinese? 
Were they Japanese? 
I couldn’t have cared less.  It’s a shameful little secret I’ll share just with you, but I wanted to be a Beach Boy and a Ninja Turtle when I grew up. 

      Though it is not typically considered when listing “martial arts”, my training truly began in high school when I joined the wrestling team.  Wrestling, however, is one of the oldest grappling arts that has incarnations in nearly all early civilizations across the world.  I began, my Freshman year, wrestling at the 189lb weight class and had slimmed down to 6% body fat and a trim 152lb by my senior year. 

     When I started university, I realized very quickly that a diet of late-night pizza and Pepsi combined with strange sleeping habits left me feeling anxious and energetic.  I needed to find some sort of sport or activity.  Fortunately, a friend found a poster advertising the university’s new Aikido club.  Knowing I would be interested, she wrote down the details and passed them along.  By early October, I began training in Yoshokai Aikido and had my very first testing that December. 
     During the summer of my freshman year, I returned home to Grand Rapids and researched dojos in the area.  I couldn’t stand to let three months go by without training.  After experimenting at a couple clubs, I finally found the Toyoda Center which, at the time, was a member of the Aikido Association of America.  For the next two years I trained in Yoshokai Aikido during the school year and AAA during the summers.
     By the end of my senior year at University, David Mata—the sensei who had worked most closely with me at the Toyoda Center—founded the Kyoseikan dojo under the Birankai North America association.  I have followed my sensei in his move and, when in Grand Rapids, train in the Birankai style of Aikido. 

      AS with so many students of the martial arts, it was my dream to visit Japan from the first time I walked into an American dojo.  I was given this opportunity in 2008 when I was accepted to the Japan Exchange and Teaching—JET—program.  My experiences in Japan during the last couple years have provided me with two important insights into Japanese culture: 1; Japanese people appreciate it when foreigners express interest in some specific aspect of their culture and 2; the best way to meet Japanese people is by joining a club or sport. 
      My neighbor in Kitakyushu happened to train in Judo and he was kind enough to invite me to his dojo soon after I arrived in Japan.  Though I had never trained in Judo before, the warmth and positive energy at the Shishinkai Judo association was enough to ensure my quick dedication to the art.  During the next two years I trained under the instruction of Haga Masamitsu Sensei.  I also trained in Aikikai Aikido and participated in both an Aikido demonstration and testing while living in Kitakyushu. 

     Finally, my time training in jujitsu has been brief as I began barely three months ago while at home training at the Kyoseikan dojo.  Though the time has been short, jujitsu has, once again, renewed my passion and energy for Budo.  It is perhaps the most martial of the arts I have yet practiced and I foresee a long and happy future together. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who Am I?

Tales of The Iron Goat

Let’s begin things with a brief introduction; get to know each other, so to speak.  Well, you’ll get to know me, anyway.  If you’re reading this than you’ve demonstrated yourself to be a classy individual and that’s all I need to know about you.

     I am from a small suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Comstock Park.  Until the age of seven, I had a very normal, middle-American life.  My Dad was the most exotic person I knew... since he had a suntan.

     When I was seven I began to suffer extreme migraines.  By the time doctor’s discovered the cause, it was too late and the brain tumor that had been developing began to put pressure on my optic nerves.  To make a long and complicated medical history short, two surgeries left me alive but completely blind.  This was, in a word, life-changing. 

     Such life-altering experiences can have one of two results: leave you depressed and defeated or drive you to seek out and overcome every challenge.  I chose the latter life-path and spent the following years devoted to school.

     After graduation from high school I attended the University of Michigan [go blue] where I got highest honors in psychology and fluent in Spanish.  During this time I studied abroad in Santiago de Chile and went to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago. 

    After university, I spent two years teaching English in southern Spain.  Why I ever left the shores of the Mediterranean Sea I will never know, but my wanderlust eventually drove me to Kitakyushu, Japan, where I spent an additional two years teaching. 

     This brings us more or less up to the present.  I am now preparing myself for one final year in Japan at the International Budo University, where I will be studying Judo. 

     Along the way I have met a myriad of the most interesting characters.  It has been these people, perhaps most of all, which have kept me traveling.  You start to get attached to these sorts of people and that, my friends, is dangerous!  Many have been my various sensei and other roll-models and I will, occasionally, be forced to nod a cyber head in their direction.

Now join me as we talk Budo!  And whatever else takes my fancy.  Let’s enjoy blogging!