An old-school guitar rock standard blasts from the boom box in the upper floor practice room where Maria Harrison is working. Her bo staff is a blur of shining metal as she practices the jabs and spins. At the end, she strums it, guitar style — a humorous finish to a completely serious effort that she hopes will make her a karate world champion.
It is the kind of routine that Maria and her sister, Angie, might have watched longingly through the windows of their brothers’ and sisters’ tae kwon do class years ago. Now they are among the contenders from a western Lenexa karate school who are competing for gold this week in the World Karate & Kickboxing Council tournament in Montreal.
Maria, 14 and Angie, 16, are two of five students from American Sport Karate Center in Lenexa who will compete for the U.S. team in the WKC tournament. Also from the center are Kimberly Harrison, their soon-to-be adoptive mother, Katherine Simms, 18, of Shawnee and adult student Mike Cofer of Burlington, Kan. A sixth student, Eric Scott Jr., 13 of Basehor, qualified but cannot go. The Harrisons are also from Basehor.
While that may seem like a lot of top-tier competitors from one area school, it does not account for all those from the Kansas City area who hope to beat out over 1,000 competitors from about 20 countries in a variety of events and age categories.
In all, 11 people from Kansas City dojos will compete as part of the 145 or so on Team USA. Aubrey, James and Dave Bailey from Kansas City — students at the Wilcox Karate Academy in Independence will compete, as will Sarah, Emily and Megan Schumann of Independence, who train at Long’s Shotokan Karate Academy in Independence.
That so many students from a relatively small city made the team’s final cut is a reflection of the intense interest in martial arts in Kansas City, instructors say. “This is one of the more dominant areas of the country when it comes to the martial arts,” said David Clifton, owner of American Sport Karate Center.
Clifton and other instructors often mention a statistic that shows more martial arts studios per capita in Kansas City than in Los Angeles. He estimates there are 200 dojos in the metro area.
In fact, the section of 87th Street in Lenexa between I-35 and I-435 used to be known as “Karate Row,” Kim Harrison said. At one time there were no fewer than eight schools along that street, she said.
Richard Plowden, president of the WKC for the U.S., agrees. “There are a couple of places that are hotbeds for the sport of martial arts and Kansas City definitely is one of them,” he said. Plowden and others say that’s because a few schools here have developed a tradition of turning out world-class competitors.
The WKC is headquartered in Manchester, England, and has 50 member countries, Plowden said. But it is relatively new. This week’s tournament is only its fourth, and the first ever in North America.
Since karate is not an Olympic sport, it and other fighting styles are divided among different tournament groups. But Clifton, Long and others competing believe that the quality of the competition, as well as the number of competitors and countries involved, make it the closest thing their sport has to an official world championship.
The martial arts have been a mainstay in the lives of the Harrisons. It was the thing they gravitated toward seven and a half years ago when they moved here from California.
And they were good at it. Maria and Angie were both at the first world championship in Ireland. Angie earned two golds and two bronzes at that event and Maria took home three bronzes.
They qualified the other years as well, but a stressful family situation made another trip overseas out of the question until this year. Kim Harrison, an instructor at American Sport Karate, is set to adopt the girls on National Adoption Day Nov. 17.
Being in the tournament circuit also provides a sense of family, said Kim Harrison. Competitors from all over the world keep up with each other via Facebook and email. “The tournaments are like an extended family reunion,” she said.
And that family inspires a lot of dedication. Contestant Katherine Simms, a freshman at Kansas State, drives back from Manhattan every week to train for the event. Eric started karate at age 3 and was the very first of the “Tiny Tigers” class.
Wearing the team colors in Canada is an expensive proposition, especially if more than one family member competes. Kim estimates the trip will put them back $4,500 to $5,000. The girls have worked hard lifeguarding, babysitting and teaching private karate lessons all summer to take care of some of that.
But it will have been worth it, they say. The girls admit to being fierce competitors. “When she (Maria) works hard and gets compliments, I step up my game,” Angie said.
No matter how it goes, though, the two will remain close. “If we’re competing against each other,” said Angie, “we’re also cheering each other on.”