For her 12th birthday, Samantha Hutchinson of Soldotna had a sleepover with her closest girlfriends. They watched "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken," did their hair, painted their nails and tested their makeup techniques.
Samantha, also known as Sam, and her friends also put together a talent show highlighting their individual skills. One girl performed a dance, another read an original poem and yet another demonstrated a swimming stroke.
Sam performed one of the 15 katas -- a choreographed series of formed exercises -- she had been practicing for an upcoming karate test she needed to earn, the next in a succession of belts.
One month later, on April 14, Sam presented the kata again, this time in front of her entire family and, more importantly, the school's founder, Yoshihiro Okamoto, who came from Anchorage to proctor the exam.
Hutchinson helps Shaffer unroll and don a new belt during a graduation ceremony.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
At the end of the test, Sam found herself doing the splits in midair with one leg supported by Okamoto and the other by Mike Hancock, her instructor. She had just earned a black belt in karate.
"I was shaking," recalled Sam.
Although she thought the test for her yellow and second belt was more difficult, it was only because she had never met Okamoto before. By the time she was prepared for her black belt test, Hutchinson had been through eight previous exams and Okamoto was a familiar face.
However, she and her father, Bill Hutchinson, agree that Okamoto is harder on the black belts than any other test. Sam had to endure an eight-hour physical test on a separate day prior to the exam itself.
Becky Shaffer, 3, watches Hutchinson closely as Hutchinson demonstrates a move for the young student during a test. Shaffer's father said Hutchinson has been a good mentor for his daughter.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"It's eight full hours of absolute torture," said Hancock, who has instructed Sam for three years. "I think it is important for kids to learn that the limitations that they have set for themselves are not their true limitations.
"They can actually do phenomenal things when they try."
Hancock remembers during Sam's last endurance test, another student joined her halfway through.
"(Sam) did an exceptional job. Toward the end, she was encouraging him when he had been going for four hours and she had been going for eight," he said.
Belts representing levels of achievement are on display in Hancock's office. Hutchinson has achieved the highest level, the black belt.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Sam's performance during that test and then her black belt exam are an example of the way she has dedicated the past three years to honing her skills according to the 13 virtues of karate, which Okamoto selected as goals for the students of his school.
Okamoto's school of karate is "ginen ryu." Roughly translated from Japanese, it means finding one's own path.
For now, Sam has found her path in karate.
Virtues 1 and 2
efficiency of the mind
Hutchinson, standing at right, assists head instructor Mike Hancock as he prepares to test other young students.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
The first and second virtues of karate go hand in hand. The skills of concentration and efficiency are important to developing karate techniques.
From the beginning, Sam had these qualities and put them to use in her karate career.
"She started with me when she was 9, and right off the bat she was very focused and motivated," Hancock said. "She worked very hard with an attention to detail that isn't very common with kids that young."
Sam first decided to try karate after seeing a booth at the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in Ninilchik.
Originally, her family opted to sign her up for four months of classes. After six months, her father asked Sam if there was anything she wanted more than getting a black belt.
Her response was, "Well, I want to be a teen-ager."
With that they decided to try for the belt.
For the past two years she spent two hours four or five afternoons a week working with Hancock. She dedicated time after school at the studio and at home.
"The system is structured so that it can be done in three years, but most kids take longer," Hancock said. "Sam didn't stray from her task."
It will take another three years and many more katas before Sam will earn her second-degree black belt. Although the black belt is the highest color, students still can achieve higher degrees once they attain it. Okamoto has a fifth-degree black belt.
"For now, we've committed to continue to do karate lessons," Bill said. "I've made the financial commitment and she's made the personal one."
Sam said she is taking it one year at a time.
Virtues 3, 4 and 7
Sam has the third, fourth and seventh virtues down pat.
"The thing that stands out about her are her leadership skills," Hancock said. "She is one kid that I have never really had to spend much time on explaining the details of leadership. She is willing to delegate responsibility. If it comes to the point where she has to make a decision, she will go ahead and make that decision on her own."
She frequently leads warm-ups and occasionally classes of all ages. Sam has led classes with up to 15 people as old as 20 and as young as 2 or 3. She enjoys teaching the little ones because "they are cute." However she doesn't appreciate it when the older ones don't act their age.
"They don't want to pay attention to me because I am younger," she said. "They goof off and act like a bunch of 3 year olds."
Regardless, Hancock said he is comfortable leaving Sam in charge.
"I can very easily turn her loose on a class, and she could teach the whole entire class without coming to me for guidance. She will keep it fun and exciting. Everyone that takes her classes enjoys her classes. Older and younger, she will teach a class with adults in it."
Sam has future aspirations that go in many directions, but she expresses an interest in teaching.
"She takes to any little kids," said Becky Hutchinson, Sam's mother. "She just likes kids. She is drawn to them."
During the past year at school, Sam volunteered an hour every day after school to work with children in younger grades.
"She helped them read," Becky said. "She didn't consider it as anything except that it was something that she wanted to do. She viewed it as spending time with kids and helping them."
Bill agrees that Sam takes to leadership and teaching.
"At school she is always in a leadership position, not because she jumped up and grabbed it, but because they respect her and see leadership in her," he said. "She is a natural born teacher."
Karate has revealed in Sam a tremendous amount of self-discipline and a remarkably mature outlook on life.
For three years she hasn't missed a beat when it comes to practicing karate.
"Its never been to the point where she didn't want to go," Bill said.
Sam, herself, can't explain it.
"I guess I just like it," she said. "It gets harder in the summertime, like when everybody will have started a swimming party and I will have to go to karate."
However, she realizes life will be waiting for her when she gets out of class.
"I know there will be other hot days. It's not like life will have dried up while I was gone. It's only one hour."
Her self-discipline doesn't only apply to getting her to practice. She is dedicated and motivated in class, also.
"I've never really had to push her," Hancock said.
Becky and Bill agree that Sam has never had to be pushed to practice at home either.
"I thought she would go for a while and just kind of lose interest," Becky said. "She had tried gymnastics and ballet before. Getting her to practice the gymnastics was difficult, but she would come home and practice karate.
"What amazed me was how dedicated she was."
Virtues 6, 8, 10, 12 and 13
ability and quick action
While karate requires mental acuteness and focus, the physical side cannot be ignored.
Beyond the long tests required for achieving a new level of skill, every class involves complete concentration on specific movements and forms. Sam had to learn 15 katas for her black belt test. Since then she has added four more to her repertoire.
However, she can never forget the basics. Every exam tests her knowledge starting from her very first class. The basics are also required for participation in karate tournaments.
Sam has competed in two tournaments so far. She took first in forms and second in sparring for the 10- to 12-year-old division when she was a green belt. Her team always wins a higher proportion of the trophies than other teams from around the state, Bill said.
Perhaps more important than the trophies are the skills Sam has acquired.
"I think it is wonderful, every child should learn self-defense in our society," Becky said. "I think it is a good skill to have, plus it makes a person feel good about themselves when they are good at something."
Becky gives a lot of the credit for her daughter's success to her instructor.
"Without Mike, we wouldn't have stayed there that long. He is just good with them, patient yet fair," she said. "He has control of the class and with positive feedback he gets right on them when he needs to."
"He is just one of those people who has the ability to relate to the students on any level. I do think that part of the credit goes to him."
Sam's love of athletics does not end with karate. Her favorite activities are to swim in and ride bikes around Sport Lake.
Virtues 9 and 11
Nine and 11 are two virtues that will serve Sam well in the years to come whether she remains involved in karate or not, said Hancock.
Students in his class recite their student creed at the beginning and end of every session. From the start, they have to memorize the few short lines:
"To achieve happiness through a balance in life. My mission: to improve all that I am and to always help others. To forever seek to develop knowledge in the mind, honesty in the heart and strength in the body."
Sam has risen to the creed's challenge.
"The three years here have done wonders for her confidence," Bill said. "There is a lot more to it than inflicting damage on another human being. It's all about respect and confidence."
"I know she listens to and respects Mr. Hancock 100 percent."
Sam admits she occasionally wants to talk back, but she keeps on going because "he would make me do 400 million push-ups."
Her confidence also has carried over into her schoolwork.
"She has kept her grades up," Becky said.
Bill agrees her grades are good, but he thinks, perhaps, school carried over to karate.
"She was already pretty good at school. Whatever she does, I think what she has learned here will help her."
n n n
Her parents and instructor said they don't know how far Sam will take her talent, but that the foundation she has built will reap rewards down the line.
Becky said she realizes when Sam starts junior high next year, things may change.
"At that age, a lot of things happen. We will just have to see how it all plays out," she said. "Sometimes I look at her and think, 'Wow, this is my kid.'"
For now, Sam is focusing on the same things every young girl thinks about: whether she wants to be a swimmer, drama teacher, veterinarian or doctor when she grows up; how to avoid "stupid" boys; how to conquer math; how to navigate the halls in between classes in junior high; or when she will next get to see her best friend.
"Wherever her path takes her I think she will be very successful at it," Hancock said. "I hope she uses the martial arts as a vehicle to take her on her path. I think that Sam has great things in store for her. She will stay on the right path and get great things out of life."
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