In the fall of 1978 I walked through the Fairview Mall in St.Catharines. It was a Sunday afternoon… well before Sunday shopping was ever considered in Canada… but it was open for its weekly flea market. When my friends and I passed by the restaurant (now a dollar store) we saw a poster of a Japanese man in a white karate uniform performing a front kick. Classes were being held on Wednesdays, downstairs in the restaurant hall.
I was with my neighbour at the time who had taken judo a number of years prior but had to stop at the age of 12 due to a very serious car accident he was involved in. This was about 3 years later so he was fully healed and wanted something to replace his judo classes. My other high school buddy was ecstatic stating he always wanted to learn karate.
My reactions was more of – yeah… I’ll tag along for the ride.
We showed up the following Wednesday and were met by the man in the poster. We weren’t dressed to work out so he suggested that we watch and come back the next class if we wanted to try. I had no preconceived expectations at all. My idea of karate was a bunch of people in white suits kicking stuff. I don’t know how long we stayed that night. It could have been 5 minutes, it could have been an hour. I just know that what I saw that night left an impression that I will never forget.
The man in the poster was Sensei Masaru Shintani. At that time he was 51 years old and moved more dynamically than any other person I had ever seen before.
A number of life events happen in 10 years (from the time I was 14 until I was 25) but that’s how long it actually took me to earn my black belt. I juggled school and work and back to school and then back to work and there were times where I simply didn’t work out because other things got in the way… but I always came back to karate.
If you quickly did the math, from 1978 to 1987 there are only 9 years, which is true. I actually started teaching when I was a brown belt. The problem was that Sensei Shintani stopped teaching in his clubs per-say. He had built a following so massive that he spent all of his time travelling the country teaching his black belt students at their clubs. There were a couple attempts at keeping the club going in St. Catharines by various instructors, but it eventually fizzled out. Right at the point where I was so hungry for this sport that I couldn’t let that happen.
I had a very good relationship with Sensei. Other than my own father, Sensei Shintani was the most influential man in my life. I called Sensei at his home one evening and asked him what I could do since there was no longer a club in St.Catharines. He told me to start one. I questioned starting one as a brown belt. He told me not to worry about that, but if I wanted some help I should call Mike Bannister who was teaching a kids class with Tony Robles in St.Catharines already.
When I called Mike, there was no hesitation. He wanted in. About a month later we were holding our first classes as the new "St.Catharines Wado Kai Karate Club" at the Ukrainian Black Sea Hall. Other than a short time in 1996 when there were some changes going on in the hall management, we have been here. 25 years later we continue to share a lifetime of what we have been taught.
I remember my first class teaching here like it was a foggy haze. My memory is pretty sharp but I was so nervous, everything was a haze. I wrote down a lesson plan. It probably took me a week to write but I barely got through the first few items and 2 hours was gone. I quickly realized that focussing on a few pertinent items in one class was the way to go.
Sensei Mike and I were very complimentary of each other in the way we taught. He was much more technique oriented than I was at the time. I knew the importance of having strong basics, so I worked them hard. But my passion for the physical aspect of the sport was what kept me coming back. I love to spar. Kihon kumite, rendori, freestyle kumite… having a partner challenge me was my drive.
As a brown belt I started to travel to other clubs. I went to 2 clubs in particular. The Grimsby Beach club where I knew Sensei Brian Chmay from my first class in the Fairview Mall and I was introduced to Sensei Brad Cosby. The other club was Welland dojo where Sensei Ron Mattie and Sensei Peter Ciolfi held most of the classes that I could attend on a Friday night. Both these clubs, for very different reasons were crucial in my karate development as a student and as an instructor. I would not have been successful without their influences.
In February 1988 I was awarded the rank of Shodan, 1st degree black belt. Any hesitations I had prior to that as a teacher of karate were gone.
For the first couple years we only had an adult class. In 1990 that changed. Sensei Tony Robles was retiring from teaching. He and Sensei Mike were still teaching the junior class so it was time for me to step up. I did so even though I was absolutely terrified of little people at the time J
There were a number of great students that came out of that junior class that were graded to black belt. Scott Stapleford, Shawn Stroud, Omar Khan, Mike Matsushita, Rocco and Rosanna DiPaulo, Mike Brown, John Anderson. To this day they were some of the youngest black belts I have ever recommended for the rank. They could handle themselves perfectly in the adult world. These young adults were solid!
April 19th 1992 was the day that all of St.Catharines would like to forget. That was the day that 15-year-old Kristen French was found murdered and thrown into a ditch near the gravesite of another helpless victim of evil, Lesley Mahaffy. Our community was shocked and our innocence was violated. There was a fear for our children that we never felt before. That fear was recognized in the martial arts community. Every club was bursting at the seams with new students. Parents were turning to the karate clubs to help teach not just self-defense, but awareness and avoidance. The St. Catharines Wado Kai enrollment that year was 135.
On a positive note 1992 was the year a green belt named John Lott discovered our club. John retired from karate before earning his black belt but he brought to our club was a couple of ronin black belts that started at the Northern Shotokan Club in Thorold and continued seeking a full time club since their club had folded. They were turned away from one club because the instructor said he had enough black belts. Lucky for us, they found our dojo. Sensei Henry Bergen and Sensei Walt Fast whom you all know are still a huge part of our club today.
It was only a few short months later that year when Henry, Walt, Mitch Orr, Martin Boerema and I traveled to Radford Virginia to discover what they were calling the "Karate College". We had no idea at the time how this would inspire us and push us to further develop our martial arts. We worked out with World Champions Joe Lewis who has recently passed away and Bill Superfoot Wallace who were both major influences and complementary to our teaching and values. Since then, we have had the opportunity to stay in contact with these gentlemen and work out with them dozens of times.
In 1993 we brought both these men to the Black Sea Hall to put on a seminar and introduce them to the Shintani Karate organization. It was 1993 when I spoke with Joe Lewis and he convinced me that I really wasn’t too old to try full-contact kickboxing as a sport. He told me our karate skills were very strong and the transition would be easy. When the World Heavyweight Champion tells you that you can do it, then why not try.
In 1995 Barry Irwin, a student of this club and then my full time sparring partner and I got carded at the Buffalo raceway and fought our matches. My personal goal was to prove to that our training in Shintani Wado Kai Karate was effective. We had achieved our goals.
1996 was a monumental year for the club. Although there were already a number of students that we had recommended for grading to their black belts, this was the first time that there were students that were grading for their black belts who started as white belts at the St.Catharines Wado Kai Club. Peter Leitch and Barry Irwin were awarded their black belts that day along with Roberto Scolaro and Jim Sedore. This was also the year that Sensei Ronalda joined our club.
In 1997 we lost an inspiring man and great leader. Sensei Peter Ciolfi who was the most likely candidate to take over from Sensei Shintani had been taken from us at only 47 years of age.
In 1998 Sensei Peter Leitch relocated to Houston Texas where he resides today and will be grading for his shodan in Aikido later this year. Sensei Peter brought humility to our club that is incomparable to anyone else. With his job he traveled to Northern Ontario where he worked out with Sensei Jonathan Lerouch. While in the great white North, he met people like Sensei Rick Levelielle who is a member of our senate. When Peter came back to Niagara he convinced myself and Sensei Walt to travel 14 hours north to Wawa to compete in a local tournament there. 14 hours to Wawa in April…
Without a doubt we never regretted a moment. We opened ourselves to the organization beyond our own region and met people on that trip that we look forward to meeting at every Shintani event. People like Senseis Darren Marshall and Sanford de Witt.
1998 was also the year that I took a serious look at what our friends were doing across the border in Buffalo. I had met Sensei Dr. Bob Graham many times at the black belt workouts and various tournaments. Sensei Shintani spoke very highly of Sensei Bob. He even made a point of saying that his kushanku kata was one of the most spirited katas he has ever seen.
Sensei Bob has a student who followed him around most everywhere he went. His name is Peter Avino. I was a shodan when I first saw him spar at a tournament. His spirit was of true Shintani karate. I had to learn from the same person who taught him. That’s all there was to it. Since then I have been a regular at the Buffalo club and Peter and I have been best of friends in and out of the dojo.
1998 was also the year that Sensei Art Liszak joined our club.
In 1999 one of the former Grimsby Beach black belts got intrigued in what we were doing. His daughters started training about a year earlier and finally couldn’t hold back any longer. Sensei Don Gemmell became a major part of our student development over the next few years. Don and I put on a number of miles travelling from club to club particularly over the summers when we didn’t have our own club open. Learning from others from around our organization has always been a big part of our development as a club.
In May of 2000 we lost our mentor and leader. Sensei Masaru Shintani passed after teaching clinics in Northern Ontario. He had a severe stroke a couple years prior but persevered and never gave up living and never gave up his passion for karate.
Many organizations split and fall after a single leader passes on but not the Shintani Karate Federation. We still have nearly 3000 registered students across Canada. Sensei Denis Labbe is the President of the Canadian SWKKF. Sensei Ron Mattie is the Chief Instructor and Sensei Brad Cosby is one of the Senate member and technical advisors. Sensei Bob Graham is the President of the SWKKF USA. Both organizations work harmoniously together today.
In 2002 Sensei Walt Fast accomplished something that most people at the age of 49 wouldn’t consider. He won a series of tournaments that led him to be chosen as a member of the Shintani Karate Federation National Competition Team. He held that spot for 2 years. During that time his son Alex and daughter Lauren who were aspiring black belts themselves became exposed to the training of the team through their father and had opportunities to travel to some of the clinics and tournaments that were within driving distance.
One particular tournament in Pittsburgh really opened our eyes to the open forum of mixed style competition. It didn’t deter anyone of them. It made them aware that there’s no playing around in these situations and you’d better be on your toes at all times.
In 2002, Walt’s daughter Lauren secured a spot on the team and his son Alex started as an alternate but ended up taking over the Shodan division lead role after a year.
On the 2004 team both Lauren and Alex secured lead roles on the team. I happened to be the manager of the team at that time and put some of my Karate College experience to work. The team traveled to California where they were introduced to the "real Mr. Miyagi", Fumio Demura who did all the stunts in the movie. Sensei Demura was also a friend of Sensei Shintani and welcomed our group with open arms. Of all the "Professors" at Karate College, Sensei Demura was the only person I ever saw Mr. Joe Lewis bow to with full respect of his martial arts and as a noble person.
Sensei Alex went for one more tour of duty and secured the heavy weight spot in 2006 until 2008. Sensei Alex is now serving in the Canadian Navy in British Colombia but longing for a karate club and Sensei Lauren is of course with us and part of our teaching team here in St. Catharines.
We have been provided a number of opportunities to share our passion for karate. I have been a guest instructor at the Delhi clinics a number of times being invited by Sensei Bruce Perkins and Sensei Jim Atkinson (also Senate members) and Sensei Spring Kay. In 2010 Sensei Brad, Sensei Ronalda and myself traveled to Calgary and hosted clinics prior to their annual tournament. Sensei Heather Fidyk is the host club there and is now a member of the SWKKF senate.
In recent years Sensei Henry and Sensei Ronalda have taken a lead in teaching the junior class. This is responsibility that is beyond what many people can perceive. You trust us with your children and we appreciate your confidence. It’s something we don’t take lightly. We love what we do and we have fun doing it, but we take our roles very seriously. We thank you for your support. Your children are the future of our organization.
In October of 2011 a new division of Shintani Karate was formed out of Pennsylvania that I was invited to join. The Shintani Combative Team was formed. This group of 6 was invited by US Special Forces to teach the Medical Warfare Group at Fort Bragg North Carolina. This was an honour that I will never forget, nor undermine. But in truth, the greater honour was being invited back after they saw us in action.
The 6 people on the team are Senseis’ Toby Wolf, Bill Sorvelli, Dan Moore, Mark Flaherty, Peter Avino and Neil Prime. We introduced Shintani Karate to the US military as a realistic form of self-defense. We included skills that were taught to us outside of Shintani karate, particularly ground fighting skills, but the base of the techniques was pure Wado Kai Karate.
Through the years we at the St.Catharines Wado Kai Karate Club have promoted good health, strong spirit, honesty and purity and share our passion for the art. These are the teachings of Sensei Shintani that we represent and we are glad that you are a part of them.
We never know what the future will bring, but God be willing, karate will continue to be a big part of our lives because eventually, it becomes a way of life.
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