Going for black belt

by Aubrie Appel

I have been practicing Aikido for many years and I am 56 years old. For the past couple of years, my sensei, Jim Barnes, had been encouraging me to think about preparing for my shodan (1st-degree black belt) test. In August, Jim-sensei suggested I test at a seminar in October —  provided I was willing to commit to hard work and extra practice.

I had to make a decision. A black-belt test is a physically and mentally demanding exam that is normally conducted at a seminar by senior Aikido instructors. There is usually a large audience of students, too. I really needed to polish my techniques (to say the least!) and felt I had to lose a minimum of 15 lb. to have any chance of success. I discussed the matter with my wife Gail and two sons, who were very supportive.

I decided to make that commitment. I would describe the next eight weeks as very intense and grinding.  I attended additional classes  and started to eat healthier.

Jim-sensei and Yumi-sensei (his wife and co-instructor at the dojo) set aside a half hour to 45 minutes each day for special practice. I had to work on performing a very wide variety of techniques smoothly, consistently and without pause, as required for the test. As time moved on, with both senseis’ attention to detail and direction, I got over many bad habits and improved my practice.

Nevertheless, there were occasions when I seemed to stagnate and really had to question whether I would be ready for this exam. However, I could not let myself, Jim-sensei and Yumi sensei, or my family down.

It was important to improve my stamina. After a two-hour class, Jim-sensei and a couple of other dojo members, Vadim and Adam, would throw me around continuously — 25 times without stopping at the start, and building up to 50 times. After a very short break, I would then do my test practice while still winded. Sometimes during these practices, fellow students would leave the dojo at the end of class and wish me “Good luck,” with a grin on their faces as if to say, “Better you than me!”  In the beginning, I dreaded this demanding part of my training, but as my conditioning improved, I actually started to look forward to it.

What helped motivate me even further was that I was losing about two pounds per week as well.  I used to joke with Jim-sensei that this type of conditioning is better than the Jenny Craig Weight Loss Program. I lost a total of 16 lb. in eight weeks.

By the time exam day came, I felt confident about passing the test if all went well. I also felt that my stamina was sufficient to get me through the approximately 30-minute exam. Once the exam commenced and with my wife and son watching, I felt a rush of relief that it was finally here.

Then, it happened.  After I completed the first two or three techniques, I felt a strong, dull tightness in the back of my left leg as if it was about to collapse.  I realized that I had probably injured my hamstring. The thought that raced through my mind was, “Oh my God, I may have to leave the exam if my leg collapses.” Fortunately, I managed to get through the exam successfully. I learned later that I had pulled my hamstring and that it would take about two weeks to heal.

Right now, I can only watch classes. It is frustrating not to participate after training so hard for the past eight weeks. However, my hamstring is healing, so I look forward to beginning to practice again very soon.

I feel so grateful to Jim and Yumi senseis for all their attention and support since I commenced Aikido, and especially for the extra attention I received during the past two months.

I am also very thankful to my wife and fellow Akidoka at Aikido Hokuryukai for all their support.

Lastly, I am thankful to my late father, who always encouraged me to learn a martial art for confidence and self-defense.  I know he would have been very proud.