In 2010, Gary had been helping his wife with her photography business when he was introduced to Potomac Kempo. The couple had shot family portraits for Master Santillo, and when they were reviewing the photos, the conversation turned to Gary’s fitness level.
“We looked at my belly — and my belly had gotten pretty big,” Gary says. “Chris said to me, ‘We could work on that.’ He was not pushy at all. He just said if it’s something you ever want to do, let me know.”
At that time, Gary had recently moved to Alexandria from Blacksburg, Va., to be closer to his fiancée. But he’d left behind his friends and support crew, and he was feeling a little out-of-sorts in D.C. — not to mention bored and overweight.
But it was another year before he took Master Santillo up on his offer. And that’s only because an email arrived in July 2011 that changed everything. It was a save-the-date message for his 25th high school reunion in Appomattox, Va.
“I realized I needed to go back and see my friends I grew up with in five months,” he says. But he also knew he was no longer the skinny kid his school friends called Gilligan, and he decided to do something about it. “I wanted to be in shape.”
Wasting no time, Gary got in touch with Master Santillo, who promptly set him up for his first class that same day. As Gary describes it, he was put through the ringer by his instructor. He had never heard of a Burpee; he managed to do 15 but thought it was going to kill him. “I had my butt handed to me,” he says. “And I joined on the spot.”
To be fair, the reunion wasn’t Gary’s only motivation. He and his fiancee had married, and she had soon afterwards been diagnosed with M.S. It happened suddenly — she woke up one morning with tingling that quickly led to a loss of fine motor skills. Today, she largely controls the disease with medication, but at the time, it was difficult and scary, and there were a lot of unknowns about her condition and future. Gary felt like there wasn’t anything he could do to help her. So he decided to get himself in shape.
“Health was really on our minds,” he says. “So I decidedif I could be in better shape, that would allow me to do something I could really take control of.”
So having never played sports or been a gym rat (he played chess and Dungeons & Dragons in high school), and having spent the previous 12 years sitting at a desk for work, Gary committed to Kempo. His only experience with martial arts — beyond photographing tournaments — was as a young boy. His brother, older by six years, practiced American Freestyle Karate and would come home and try out his moves on Gary. “I’d practice with his nun-chucks and throwing stars, and we’d spar and wrestle,” he says. “I always wanted to do whatever he did, and he was a big influence in my life.”
Understanding that it would take time to learn a brand new discipline, Gary knew that he was making a long-term commitment. “I knew it would be difficult to master, and I didn’t really expect that I’d be any good at it,” he says.
The first few weeks were the hardest. He got deep gashes on his toes, carpet burns and bruises. “I was constantly sore, and my brain felt like it could not hold any additional Kempos,” he says. Yet he kept returning to the dojo, even when he could barely stand or stay awake.
As a white belt, he practiced nearly every day, and it paid off. He was invited to join the Academy shortly after earning his purple belt. To him, being asked to teach the new skills he’d learned was an incredible honor.
Three years later, Gary, 47, can do 40 pushups “in a heartbeat.” His upper body strength has improved, he’s lost 30 pounds, and he had to buy new clothes to accommodate his slimmer waistline.
He still works at home, as a consultant for an electrical engineering firm, mostly making phone calls. He also works part-time for Potomac Kempo, handling perspective student inquiries and managing much of the dojo’s social media and photography.
Gary has found that his fellow students have become family. He’s developed a nice network of friends and enjoys seeing them outside of classes. He says he has also been honored to photograph some of the students, including family portraits and the wedding of one couple he trains with.
In the fall of 2013, Gary talked to Master Santillo about going to China to train with the Shaolin Monks and test for his Black Belt. As the staff photographer, he had seen countless belt tests for other students, and he knew what to expect — in the dojo. But testing at the Shaolin Temple was a big unknown, so he began to train even harder. He started doing daily push-ups, increased his running and added extra sets during class. He even accepted the challenge of Sensei Dyer to run in a Tough Mudder race outside of Richmond, successfully running through 10 miles of mud and tackling obstacles.
As a third-degree brown belt, Gary traveled to China, his first ever overseas trip. He was surprised how difficult it was to climb the mountain with the other students. “The stone steps were designed as a defense mechanism, and there was no normal cadence going up,” he says. “You couldn’t just run up them. I found out quickly that I wasn’t in the shape I thought I was in.” He was also still tired from travel, and the previous two hours of kung fu. But he tested, and he earned the Black Belt for which he trained.
Then, at the bottom of the mountain, something magical happened. He was stretching and feeling very limber. He casually bent over at the hips and for the first time, he touched his toes. Two days after he returned from China, he said he was stiff as a board again, but now that he knows it’s possible, he will work harder to repeat the toe-touching. “I’m still working on the flexibility. People say that it’s a difficult goal for older males, so it will be hard to achieve,” he says.
He also realizes, now that he has his Black Belt, that more work lies ahead of him. “There is exponentially more to learn between Black Belt and Second-Degree Black Belt than between previous belts,” he says. “It’s like in music, when you have the chords and chord structure down, and then you can start putting it together to make music. I have the basic tools to make the art happen on my own without a step-by-step guide. The challenge now is putting it together myself.
When Gary returned from China, his wife – who has been a strong influence in pushing him along in his practice – had made a beautiful rack for his belts at her father’s woodworking shop. “When I got back, she had put all my belts on there, and one spot remains for a Black Belt. Rather than getting a second Black Belt to display, she said once I get my Second-Degree Black Belt, we will put the first one in the display case. She’s already expecting me to do more training.”
Gary says it felt great to put on the Black Belt. His first day wearing it inthe dojo, he was congratulated, and he swelled with pride. But as soon as he started practicing, he says the belt color didn’t matter – he was training just like he always had.
As for the reunion, he says, “I looked good!” But he stresses that he looks a whole lot better now. “I was confident, and I think that’s the bottom line. I felt like I could show up and smile and feel happy, and that’s because of the Kempo training.”
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