It's Wednesday night in a small, but crowded warehouse near the airport.
About 30 members of the Juneau Shotokan Karate Club are taking a class - two-thirds are youths, with a few parents joining in - but one member stands out. Even though he's one of the younger students in the class, his moves are crisper and he helps his two instructors put the other students through their paces.
Phillip Murray, 11, is one of just three black belts in the room, and the only non-adult with the rank; the others are chief instructor Diana Stevens and assistant instructor Doug Murray, Phillip's father. All the other students wear green, pink or brown belts.
He's also a national champion - the club's first national champion since 1992, when the national meet took place in Anchorage.
Phillip Murray won a gold medal in kumite (sparring) for his age group and added a silver medal in kata (forms) during the U.S. national championships Nov. 6-9 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His younger sister, Malin, a 9-year-old green belt, won a bronze medal in kumite. Doug Murray also competed in the tournament, but didn't win a medal.
"I didn't expect it," Phillip said of his national title. "It was pretty amazing."
The Murrays and several other Juneau club members attended the national championships not so much to compete, but because there was a karate cruise on the Norwegian Star the week after the tournament. The Murrays were the only Juneau residents to enter the tournament.
Before the national tournament, Phillip Murray had competed in only two other tournaments - a club tournament in February and the Kubota Cup in Fairbanks in March, where he took fourth place in kumite. When he entered the national meet, he said he was just getting a feel for the tournament since he plans to compete in it again when Anchorage hosts the tourney in 2006. He also plans to compete in the Kubota Cup again this spring.
"I'll be more prepared for next year," Phillip said. "I saw what the other states do."
As Stevens calls out instructions in Japanese during Wednesday's class, Phillip Murray is in a place of honor at the front of the class. Phillip and the brown belts next to him - mostly adults - are positioned in front of the lower-belt students as they learn basic fighting moves. Stevens wanders through the rows of students, with Doug Murray staying at the back to help the green belts, as both teachers offer corrections in English.
Later, the class breaks into pairs for sparring. Phillip Murray is first paired up with Ira Rosen, a world-class masters powerlifter in his 50s who has a brown belt, and Phillip holds his own. Later Phillip is paired up with a young green belt, the smallest kid in the class, who seems distracted by the next arriving class and the large group of students. Phillip silently taps the other boy's hand, then touches his head to remind him to keep his focus during the exercise.
When the class closes, Phillip leads the class in a recitation of the Dojo Kun (a five-part creed about developing character and respecting others). Stevens also calls the two Murray children to the front of the class to let the class know of their accomplishments.
"These are very focused students," Stevens said of the Murrays after class ended. "They're confident, but they're normal."
Karate is a family affair for the Murrays, since Doug has been taking lessons for more than 20 years and the kids grew up in the dojo. Doug is a sandan, or third-degree black belt, and only is outranked in the club by Stevens, who was just promoted to yondan (fourth-degree black belt) in October. At the same time, Phillip, a sixth-grader in the Montessori program at Harborview Elementary School, was promoted to shodan (first-degree black belt).
"In karate, they consider the black belt the beginning," Stevens said. "Now is when you learn."
In order to take lessons with the club, students must be at least 7 years old. But many adults bring their younger children to their workouts, and the kids can be seen in the wooden bleachers practicing the moves of their parents.
"I basically couldn't wait," Malin Murray said about her first lessons 2 1/2 years ago. "I thought it was fun."
"This is my fifth year," said Phillip, who is learning how to teach basic moves to younger students. "I like the kata (which looks like choreographed shadow-boxing), which is a defense against multiple attackers. I kind of like the kumite, but I like the kata a tiny bit more. You kind of know what's coming next."
The two Murray kids participate in other sports - soccer, baseball and skiing for Phillip, while Malin enjoys softball, soccer, basketball and skiing - but Doug Murray said he enjoys the discipline and etiquette the kids learn in karate class.
"It's a confidence-builder," Doug Murray said. "One thing they're doing is they're learning how to work out. From the kids' level, it's a skill for later on."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.
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