Mickey Brock does not believe most people really understand what karate is.
But Brock, the owner and sensei (teacher) at Tenchi Family Karate Club in Varnell, would put two of his best students in the minority of those who do.
Laura Tolliver, 26, and David Gambrell, 20, recently moved up a degree in their black belts. Tolliver is now a third-degree black belt, and Gambrell a second-degree black belt. Both students passed their tests July 10 in Okinawa, Japan, the birthplace of traditional karate.
“They have trained with me for 16 years,” Brock said. “They are both active in their churches and good people. They are both very talented.”
Tolliver and Gambrell also teach at Tenchi, where the emphasis is on the martial art’s traditional purpose, Brock said.
“Basically, there are two areas of martial arts,” Brock said. “There’s sports karate, which involves a lot of tournament activity. Then there’s traditional karate, which is not for tournaments at all.”
The traditional style, which he has taught to Tolliver and Gambrell, is called “classical fighting arts,” Brock said. Medals and trophies are far from its focus.
“It’s more centered toward building the person toward becoming the best person they can,” Brock said. “The instruction is deeper. It has a purpose, and it is explained.”
Although they’re different ages, Tolliver and Gambrell started training with Brock at nearly the same time. They consider one another friends and the club as a whole a “family.” Tolliver, from Rocky Face, graduated from Northwest Whitfield in 2004 and Dalton State College in 2008. Gambrell, who’s from Dalton, has a bit more interesting education past.
“I went to Dalton High, but I didn’t graduate,” he said, “(but) my mother worked at Dalton State and had co-workers write letters of recommendation for me to enroll the following year.”
He did just that, and he graduated this year.
“He’s very smart,” Brock said. “He’s 20 years old. In karate years, he’d be 50.”
Gambrell said most people think of karate as Japanese, but that is incorrect. Okinawa is now part of Japan but used to be a satellite of China.
“What most people know as karate is Japanese, but the real thing is more Chinese,” he said. “But most people don’t even know the difference between those two, either.”
While he called karate not a sport but “a discipline,” Tolliver called it “an art.”
“I guess the difference between what we do as an art, to me it’s like a commitment,” she said. “It’s not really something you want to rush through.”
And that is why it took them four years before they became second- and third-degree black belts. It is a serious passion the two share, and not one they freely talk about despite having the longest tenure of anyone at the club. Gambrell does not like publicizing his karate, and Tolliver was similar when she started as a 10-year-old.
“I remember when I first started, I didn’t want anyone to know I did karate, because that was for me,” she said. “Then I kind of opened up to help others that I knew find something they enjoy as much as I enjoy this.”
That is an example of how Tolliver feels she has grown in the past 16 years.
“For me, I used to be really shy and I’ve grown a lot in confidence,” she said. “It’s not as much about the outward as it is about the inward.”
Brock will insist what he teaches is not above or better than what he calls sports karate, and that each style has its benefits. However, he does feel his style gets neglected.
“Everything in the (United States) is tournament-oriented, and unless you are bringing trophies home, you never hear about the guys who aren’t in tournaments,” he said. “Yet they are extremely talented in their arts.”
That’s unfortunate, Brock believes, because he loves the purity of the traditional style, something Tolliver and Gambrell have maintained for 16 years. And they do so by their modest approach to their black-belt accomplishments.
“You may have a white one, and I may have a black one, but mine is white underneath,” Gambrell said. “So it’s really no difference between us.”
Brock does his best to share the tradition.
“I travel (to Okinawa) twice an year and train with my instructor. He does me the same I do for my students. I can’t just teach. I have to train to teach,” Brock said. “A really good friend of mine, he’s 50 years old and from Charlotte, N.C., he asked me in October of last year if I can take him to my instructor. You have to have permission. You can’t just walk in. He asked me if I would bring him to my instructor. He has several black belts in different styles.”
Brock fulfilled the request.
“We left that night after five hours straight of training and he was in tears,” Brock said. “He left that night and he said, ‘I’m indebted to you for the rest of my life.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I never knew what karate was about until tonight.’”
Tolliver and Gambrell have a philosophy for that, saying, “The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know.”
Brock said that tells him his students truly understand what karate really is.
“That says it completely right there,” Brock said. “It’s a lifetime journey, and you’re always learning. A white belt will learn from a black belt and a black belt will learn from a white belt.”