Mark Bongard

4th Degree Black Belt

My journey to Shaolin started with my family in April 2002. To explain, though, I have to go a little further back in time. My two sons, Matt and Alex had taken Tae Kwan Do and had tried to get me to take it with them. I have jogged regularly since college, so I was in fairly good shape, but I did not think that I could jump, kick and remember kata. I was then in my early 40s and it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Therefore, I always resisted their invitations.

Alex earned a black belt and Matt was just one belt shy of black when they lost interest. They had always been disappointed that there were no weapons in Tae Kwan Do. Matt started looking for another martial arts school that included weapons. He found the Sin Thé Karate School and asked if he and Alex could join. I told him not now, because they just lost interest in one variety of martial arts and we would not spend more money on another martial arts school so soon after they quit the other school. Myresponse is probably understood by all of the parents reading this.

I do have to admit that my wife, Judy, and I were curious about the school that Matt found. We belonged to the Sin Thé Sports Center when I was in law school from 1979 to 1982. We assumed that this must be the same Sin Thé from the Sports Center, but we were not sure. (Of course, once we joined we learned that Grandmaster Sin Thé is the same person from the Sports Center.)

Well, Matt persisted and my parental stamina broke down. We stopped by the school one Sunday afternoon in late March 2002 and took a look around. Everyone was friendly and helpful. We asked questions and got answers. Before we left, my whole family signed up! I signed up for the karate with my two sons, while my wife and daughter, Rachel, signed up for Tai Chi. You might wonder what changed from when my boys took Tae Kwan Do. After all I knew that Shaolin was going to involve kicking, jumping and memorizing, which are the three reasons why I never accepted my boys' invitations to join them. Also, I was then 44 years old and had never played a contact sport in my life. Why would I sign up for Shaolin when I would never even try Tae Kwan Do?

Well the date had a lot to do with it. On September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to fly to Washington D.C. on business. My late morning flight was obviously cancelled. Washington DC is about the only place I travel to on business. When my children asked me to take Shaolin with them one of my thoughts was that no one would take over a plane I was on, once I studied Shaolin. So the combination of national events and the simple desire to participate in a sport with my children started my journey in Shaolin. I am still early in my journey, but I have achieved first black and will be eligible to test for second black in September 2006.

I must admit that it has not been easy. I had trouble learning kata. My sense of right and left is often reversed and I am not naturally athletic. While I played tennis in high school, my coach used to laugh and marvel at how someone so off balance could still on occasion hit the ball over the net. And I can tell you that my balance was not better at age 44 - it was worse! Even though I have no natural ability I loved the classes! I think I liked them even more than my children. I practiced a lot at home and I came to the gym on Saturdays when I could to have one of the black belts help me. Sometimes it is good to be stubborn. Through injuries (of which there were severalon my way to first black) and through confusion (which still plagues me), I was determined to stick with it.

I have stuck with it and I am glad that I did. I have fun and get a great work out of body and mind. The people at the gym are great and the black belts are always helpful. In fact I think it is the people at the gym as much as anything else that keeps me coming. The members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and that makes for an eclectic mix. Thankfully, my wife indulges my interest in Shaolin and is not too bothered by my frequent visits to the gym, even when I am not having my classes. She does, however, refer to Shaolin as my mistress.

I highly recommend Shaolin. It exercises the mind and body and challenges you to overcome inner fears (like of doing cartwheels). It is something you can do with your family and it allows you to meet interesting people and make new friends. Shaolin can even open up a world of travel through the periodic trips to China that the schools across the country take. In 2005, my wife and I went on the China trip and had wonderful time. Finally, Shaolin provides a sense of personal accomplishment balanced with a humble spirit. You learn much, but you also see that there is always much to learn. You can see your own improvement, but you are also aware there are many who are more skilled than yourself. I believe that these are lessons that transfer well to the other aspects of our lives.

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