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Mojo at the Dojo

Black Belt No Easy Feat for West Fairlee Woman

  • Mick Zack, of Thetford, left, and Dawn Stever, of West Fairlee, train at Green Mountain Dojo in Thetford on Thursday. Last week, Stever attained her first-degree black belt and Zack earned a second-degree black belt. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Mick Zack, of Thetford, left, and Dawn Stever, of West Fairlee, train at Green Mountain Dojo in Thetford on Thursday. Last week, Stever attained her first-degree black belt and Zack earned a second-degree black belt. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stever works through a kata at Green Mountain Dojo. She began training about six years ago after her son lost interest in karate. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Stever works through a kata at Green Mountain Dojo. She began training about six years ago after her son lost interest in karate. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sensei Marshall Van Norden looks on as his students, Dawn Stever of West Fairlee, right, and  Mick Zack of Thetford, left, work through a kumite, a choreographed set of movements against an adversary, at Green Mountain Dojo in Thetford. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Sensei Marshall Van Norden looks on as his students, Dawn Stever of West Fairlee, right, and Mick Zack of Thetford, left, work through a kumite, a choreographed set of movements against an adversary, at Green Mountain Dojo in Thetford. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mick Zack, of Thetford, left, and Dawn Stever, of West Fairlee, train at Green Mountain Dojo in Thetford on Thursday. Last week, Stever attained her first-degree black belt and Zack earned a second-degree black belt. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Stever works through a kata at Green Mountain Dojo. She began training about six years ago after her son lost interest in karate. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Sensei Marshall Van Norden looks on as his students, Dawn Stever of West Fairlee, right, and  Mick Zack of Thetford, left, work through a kumite, a choreographed set of movements against an adversary, at Green Mountain Dojo in Thetford. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

North Thetford — For several years, Dawn Stever watched as her son, Cole, practiced karate at Green Mountain Dojo. Once she took up the discipline herself, Stever discovered a personal path to new heights — and kept right on climbing.

Six years after joining GMD because she “got tired of sitting and watching,” Stever became the 21-year-old Dojo’s first-ever female black belt recipient.

Stever, 40, earned the honor on July 12, when she passed an extensive test administered by sensei Marshall Van Norden, GMD’s founder and instructor. Perfecting GMD’s “Goju” style — an Okinawan tradition combining sharp blows and kicks with soft defensive movements — Stever left little doubt she was ready for the discipline’s highest level, scoring “excellent” on most of the exercises scored.

A West Fairlee resident, Stever became the first female pupil of Van Norden’s to earn black since he opened the practice in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1992. He relocated back to his hometown of North Thetford 10 years ago.

“I’ve had maybe 15 or 20 women over the years, but none of them got past green belt, which is halfway to black,” Van Norden said during a class at the Dojo on Thursday night. “None of them have been quite as determined as (Stever). Her dedication and work ethic is what sets her apart. She’s like a Timex watch.”

Stever said she takes pride in being GMD’s first female black-belt recipient. After all, the challenges involved in getting there are extensive.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of exercise,” she confessed. “There’s always more to learn, additional workouts to add. You always get a little nervous when you’re about to take a test, because there’s a lot to remember.”

Stever has overcome her share of injuries along the way. She enrolled in GMD in 2007 while recovering from a torn meniscus suffered while in a women’s basketball league the previous winter. She later developed a torn rotator cuff in her left shoulder, which required three months of physical therapy, then needed more PT after a hip flexor injury.

All the while, Stever adjusted to the ailments while refusing to relent in her training.

“There were ways I’d have to compensate. I didn’t do pushups when I had the torn rotator cuff,” Stever said. “There were steps we took so I wouldn’t re-injure it, but it was nothing that was going to keep me from coming back.”

As much as the adrenaline rush and physical exercise, karate’s philosophical and lifestyle elements — stressing mental focus, respect and integrity — kept Stever interested. “It really helps you become a better person as a whole,” she said.

Added Van Norden: “Karate is much more than combat or fighting, it’s a philosophy. It’s about striving for self-perfection and doing the right thing in life situations.”

It’s also requires plenty of physical exertion.

Thursday’s black belt class — attended by Stever and 18-year old Thetford resident Mick Zack, a recent second-degree achiever — began like so many athletic practices would, with calisthenics routines.

The pair started with 100 high-octane jumping jacks and moved into pushups and sit-ups before segueing into the first clear martial art exercise, Kata Sanchin, incorporating an intense series of movement and breathing patterns.

The pair were later instructed to execute various individual, choreographed exercises, each involving an array of hard and soft movements intended to harness and control energy.

Zack impressively performed “Do Butsu San” (translation: “Way of the Three Animals”), an explosive sequence of swift punches and kicks.

A Thetford Academy graduate headed to the University of Vermont in the fall, Zack has been practicing karate since third grade. Over time, he has finely honed his craft under Van Norden.

“It’s made me a lot more than just tougher, it’s really helped me just be more determined in so many areas,” said Zack, who also played soccer at TA. “When I was younger, I watched some of the other black belts, guys like Karl Cunningham and Andrew Stanley, who really helped me along.”

Stever and Zack later performed kata kumites (dual katas) where they acted out intricate combat routines without striking one another. While involving intense focus, the kata kumites weren’t without moments of playfulness. Sweating and puffing, an occasional goof-up in the choreography was always met with smiles by Stever and Zack, who have worked together throughout Stever’s journey from beginner to black belt.

“That’s really been the best part of all this, training with young men like Mick and (Max McCabe, another recent TA grad who recently received his second-degree black belt),” said Stever. “I’m so proud of them for what they’ve done and seeing them come up.”

Stever’s black belt isn’t the only honor she’s poised to earn this summer. Next month, she plans to finish course work for a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education through Springfield (Mass.) College’s satellite campus in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

“It’s a busy summer for me, a very productive summer,” she said. “There’s been a lot on the plate, but it’s been awesome.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.