COLUMBIA — The white paper bracelet on Christina Lehmuth's right ankle is faded, the fibers torn and roughed up. The ragged accessory, which Lehmuth received from the Shorin-Ryu Pro-Am Karate Tournament in St.Louis on June 21, wraps around her ankle whenever she practices and competes.
"They give it out to show that you are a competitor,"Lehmuth, 15, said. "You wear it as long as it lasts."
Lehmuth, a first kyu brown belt, competed in Saturday's Show-Me State martial arts tournament at Armory Sports and Recreation Center in Columbia. She earned first place in weapon and form and second in sparring. The weapon events consist of martial artists who demonstrate different forms, while using a weapon, such as a sword. The form event is basically performing stances and moves without the sword. In sparring, martial artists earn points by fighting and hitting certain areas of their opponent's body.
In the weapons portion, Lehmuth, using a Japanese staff called a bo, displayed a six-degree black belt form that she is trying out this year.
"I probably could have done better in sparring and weapons, but I think I did well," Lehmuth said.
Lehmuth started martial arts in November 2008 when she attended the Art of Martial Arts in Jefferson City. She learned the GoShinKan Karate taught by sensei Stacy Huffman, the Show-Me State martial arts commissioner. After going to the Kids for Free program at the school with her friend and her friend's dad, she decided to stick with the sport. Now she practices five days a week for two hours a day.
In September 2009, after earning her white belt, Lehmuth debuted her competition career in the Columbia Cup. She received her yellow belt, the second-ranking title, the next day.
Lehmuth is no stranger to the games. Since competing in 2011, Lehmuth has placed in the top three or four in all three events. Last year, she earned second in sparring, first in form and third in weapon. Lehmuth said competing in the games helps her with her martial arts resume.
"I get to see a lot of people that I know, classmates from my own martial arts school and students from other martial arts schools," Lehmuth said.
The tournament is small compared to other competitions. In 2010, Lehmuth won the North American Sport Karate Association National Champion for form and sparring, and that year she ranked first nationally in form and sparring and fourth in weapons. She is in the top 10 in the nation so far this year and uses the games as practice for the Diamond Nationals Karate Championships in Minnesota, which will be held in October.
Lehmuth is working toward a black belt, which she will test for in August 2015 when she is 17. If she succeeds, she will be the youngest in Huffman's class to earn a black belt.
Black belt preparation involves many elements. Lehmuth must learn a new form, practice fighting three opponents in sparring and write a 16-page essay on her favorite technique, the reverse punch.
"I like that technique because it's very quick, and I have good control on it," Lehmuth said.
A black belt isn't the only title she aims to attain. In March, Lehmuth heard she had been nominated for the Japanese title of sosai, which honors a student who has put exceptional skill into his or her work and demonstrated good leadership skills.
The sosai title is pretty rare, Huffman said. He has only met one student outside his school who has been honored with the title before.
"Anyone who is a leader in strength and tradition and will keep the standard of martial arts in its most simplest and purest form, could be her," Huffman said. "She has a good chance to get invited to compete in the WKF (World Karate Federation), one of the toughest martial art circuits in the world."
Lehmuth shows that leadership in other ways, too. As a sempai, or a senior student assigned to help the teacher, she directs her peers. On Saturday, while counting loudly in Japanese, she led her fellow classmates in stretches. As her classmates practiced their stances and form before the tournament, Lehmuth wandered around them and made sure they were ready and doing what they needed to do.
Her mother, Joanne Lehmuth, said her daughter used to be shy about performing in front of others. As she continued doing the sport, her daughter developed confidence. Joanne Lehmuth said the turning point happened in December 2009, when Huffman hosted a pizza party at his school after the younger Lehmuth earned her yellow belt.
Christina Lehmuth came home and told her mom she wanted to be a sensei.
"It's from her inner self that that confidence is there," Joanne Lehmuth said. "She knows she can accomplish things."
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