Senior gets kick from new hobby

The Reverend Henry Atkins has traded his priestly apparel for an entirely different set of dress, one that comes with a pair of nunchucks and boxing gloves.

The new look and mindset suit him. On Saturday, the 74-year-old Pilgrim Place resident became the oldest recipient of the Sekai Black Belt Academy’s brown belt distinction, just one level below the coveted title of black belt.

When asked why an Episcopal priest would turn to kickboxing and martial arts, a frequently asked question, the reverend answers with a smile: “I was tired of turning the other cheek.”

In fact it was his peacekeeping that prompted him into combat practice three years ago.

“It’s a way of testing your inner and outer strength,” Fr. Atkins reflected. “There is a lot of discipline involved, particularly when someone kicks you in the side of the head. You could get angry, but then you’d lose the match. You have to learn to move to a place where you can appreciate what the other person is doing.”

Though relatively new to the world of martial arts, Fr. Atkins has long held an interest in contemplative prayer, which led him to the study of T’ai Chi 35 years ago. While the form of movement meditation is often recognized for its stress relief and health benefits, T’ai Chi is also known as a form of self-defense, dubbed Chinese boxing, the hobbyist noted.

Despite his fascination with the discipline, years of study never translated to actual practice for Fr. Atkins as his pastoral duties commanded most of his time. Retirement to Pilgrim Place finally provided him with the chance to delve into his hobbies. With his spare time, he took up walk/jogging with the Pilgrim Pacers and then, with the help of trainer Denise Kane, started kickboxing. Stumbling into Fr. Atkins practicing his moves in his carport at Pilgrim Place became a regular, unquestioned occurrence, shared friend and fellow Pilgrim Ruth Brown.

“That’s Henry,” she said of her active friend. “He is the biggest inspiration.”

Fr. Atkins was a quick learner and, with the encouragement of his trainer, soon began searching for a studio in order to more fully engage in the practice of martial arts. His homework led him to the Sekai Academy on Foothill Boulevard in Claremont, where he began practicing under the guidance of former world champion kickboxer Maria Brandt. His first class consisted of Ms. Brandt and three other students, all of whom he noticed were at least 50 years his junior. That realization only served to motivate him.

“It’s sort of an ego thing, fighting with an 18 year old kid when you are 74 years old,” he laughed. “It’s the best medicine. People should never use age as an excuse.”

Fr. Atkins might be the oldest student Ms. Brandt has ever taught, and the oldest she has ever awarded a brown belt. The accolade was well earned, she acknowledged.

“He never gives up, no matter what I give to him,” Ms. Brandt said. “He always tries his best and never misses a class. It’s awesome to have a student with that kind of energy and excitement.”

He knows the art form takes time and dedication and has set a large chunk of time to his practice. His schedule includes three days of training at the studio and two days of kickboxing at Pilgrim Place, which he admits can be a challenge both physically and mentally. One of the most difficult obstacles for him, however, was learning to be comfortable sparring with his teacher.

“I was a little intimidated going up against her. I knew as my teacher she could handle it, but I have never kicked or punched a woman before. I felt like I shouldn’t do it,” he recalled. “That lasted until about the second time she kicked me in the side of the head.”

He showed none of that initial hesitation last week as he punched and kicked his way to his brown belt with the support of his friends in the audience. Becoming a martial artist is all about learning to overcome fears, both in and out of the studio, he shared. 

“Boxing can be thought of as a metaphor for life,” Fr. Atkins said. “You are constantly engaging in one struggle, one conflict, one fight after another. There is something to be said about being able to act that out physically that prepares you to do the same in life.”

—Beth Hartnett


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