Sean Short and his journey to black belt


Sean Short never let go of his dreams, worked through incredible challenges and earned a black belt in karate nearly 28 years after his very first lesson. 

Sean Short originally shared his story with Yoocan, a global collaborative community where people with disabilities share experiences and knowledge — so that no one feels alone. Yoocan and Why We Play are a natural match and overlap in the most important thing for our community INSPIRATION. FanSided is excited to partner with Yoocan and share some of their stories on our website — exciting and fantastic sports stories from people with disabilities. Come check out more of our joint material, and keep following for collaborations!

I’ve always loved sports and wanted to be athletic. Being born with cerebral palsy made this a less straightforward process. By the time I was old enough to participate in sports, baseball seemed to be my only option. I lived in North Florida and wheelchair basketball wasn’t available for kids yet. Everything changed when I watched Karate Kid and my mom introduced me to Bruce Lee.

As early as six, I remember mimicking the classic wax-on wax off on my parents’ bedroom wall. A couple of years later, my mom rented Enter the Dragon from Blockbuster Video. The moment I saw Bruce move I was entranced. I asked my mom if I could take karate lessons. Being the supportive mom she is, she found two schools. My mom set up meetings with a Tae Kwon Do school and a Kenpo Karate school.

In September 1993, I had a private lesson at the American Kenpo Karate Institute. That’s when I met my first instructor, Robert McGriff. I loved it instantly. I learned basic blocks and strikes. Kenpo as a system is composed mostly of upper body techniques. Tae Kwon Do is known for mostly kicking, so I had my mom cancel the other meeting. I don’t remember a lot from my first school. The basic blocks and strikes have never left my memory. About a year in, I had to stop training, but I knew martial arts would never leave my heart and soul.

I had every intention of going back to train with Mr. McGriff, but he closed his school before I could return. It would be a while before I could train again. I was in college before I was able to return to a class. Martial arts never left my mind. Every martial movie, demonstration, tv show, or fight sequence, I had the itch, and Champion Kenpo Karate let me scratch it. This school had the same curriculum so I was able to advance in rank and learn that even though I was sitting in a wheelchair I was far from defenseless. Before I had to take another long break I was able to reach the blue belt, the intermediate level of the system.

I had a little bit of time in Filipino Martial Arts before having to move to Maryland. I spent three years in kung fu where I learned it’s possible to kick effectively while sitting down. I also learned some great submission holds and joint locks. I was able to attain a green sash before another long unwanted break. I took Krav Maga only long enough for what seemed like a deep breath. The gym closed and I was despondent over the prospect of having another long, unwanted break. A coach at the Krav Maga gym recommended I go to a nearby school, which had No Limits in the name. It was destiny.

I’m glad I took the recommendation. Because of that decision, my life will never be the same. I stopped by American Kenpo Karate Studio on Martin Luther King Day on a lark. I was ready to train so I went over hoping to meet with an instructor, no teachers were there at the time so I left a card. Mr. Richard Grimes, the head instructor, called me to schedule a lesson. During our first lesson together, Mr. Grimes told me he would treat me like all his other students. He was honest with this statement.

In the last five years, if there was something I accomplished every martial arts-related goal I never thought I could. An example of something I accomplished in spite of myself is board breaking. I tried breaking boards one time in Florida around 15 years ago. I hit the board and the board hit back. I didn’t break my hand, but it throbbed for a while. When tested for a green belt, I thought the test was over when Mr. Grimes said I passed. He told me I was about to break a board. I had no time to dwell on my failure from the decade before. I made a fist, made a few slow strikes to prepare, and struck as hard as I could. I braced for the pain of a broken hand that never came and broke those boards in half.

I would always watch karate tournaments on ESPN as a teenager and dream about being a competitor. Now I don’t have to wonder if I can do it. When Mr. Grimes offered me a spot on the demo team I said yes instantly. The team participated in an annual competition in Philadelphia before Covid. I won gold medals in both years. The second year feels more special to me. I won a competition against an able-bodied adult and a sparring match. I hope to compete again after the pandemic ends.

There are local tournaments with a division for disabled martial artists. I have been through so much in the last five and a half years. Not only did I learn all the curriculum to earn a typical black belt. I am physically stronger, more flexible, more confident, and calmer. I truly believe I can do anything in this life I want to do. I will be teaching others with disabilities to defend themselves while improving as a martial artist. I’ll even get to live another dream of playing a superhero in a movie and choreographing fight scenes.

I used to wonder what it would be like to be a black belt. It’s not much different than being a white belt on your first day in class. The only difference between a black belt and a white belt is the one with a black piece of cloth around the waist has put the time in to learn. The white belt can reach the same level as long as they don’t quit and do not worry about how long the process takes. I’m thankful to have finally attained my goal.

I’m living proof that dreams come true if you want them bad enough and are willing to work for them. One of my dreams was to be the equivalent of a black belt in any form of martial arts. I went to six schools and started over every time before I finally reached the first summit. I earned my black belt nearly 28 years to the day of my first lesson.

The most important thing is to enjoy the journey, but also make sure to celebrate once you catch your dream. However, when you catch it, that’s when the next stage of work begins. The first-degree black belt is like finishing high school. I still have a lot to learn. I finally caught my dream.

Now I have to reach higher within it and live it to the fullest. Who knows, tournaments, world championships, television, movies, stuntman work? I vehemently believe anything is possible. I made it to black belt, I can do anything. You can too! Dreams aren’t only meant for sleeping. You catch them during your waking hours. Don’t forget to smile when you catch them. It will feel even better than you dreamed it would.

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