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David Whiting: 15-year-old with cerebral palsy earns karate black belt from his wheelchair

Orange County Register - 11/2/2018

Nov. 02--Spend some time with Matthew Fulton, who just celebrated his 15th birthday, and witness the real essence of karate.

Matthew has studied karate for nearly six years, helps lead classes, shouts like a sensei and just earned his black belt. Still, the high school sophomore is, well, unique in the world of martial arts.

Fulton has cerebral palsy and dystonia, a rare disorder that sparks involuntary and sometimes painful muscle contractions. He gets around by toggling a black electric wheelchair that looks like something out of a Mad Max movie.

Karate? Really? Oh, yeah. Really.

Perhaps Bruce Lee, action actor and karate legend, explained it best: "Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one."

Strapped in his wheelchair and fist bumping practically every kid in the dojo, Matthew embodies strength as well as endurance. He also embodies inspiration.

Yes, karate is about far more than flying kicks. In fact, some argue it's not even about kicks.

Struggles since birth

I meet Matthew before one of his regular karate lessons at American Martial Arts Academy in Fullerton. The dojo is busy, noisy and full of grunts, grimaces and grins.

In one room, two groups of elementary school-age children practice squats and defensive moves. In another room, adults slice molecules of air with their feet and punch at nothing with fists of fury.

As Matthew and I chat in one corner, teens drop by to congratulate him on recently earning his black belt.

Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Finney smiles and shakes Matthew's hand. Zack Tanabe, age 12, fist bumps Matthew. The newly minted black belt answers with a confident, "What-up?"

That confidence, however, wasn't around six years ago when Matthew got his first taste of karate during a friend's birthday party at the dojo.

As Matthew started to leave, a sensei wondered if he was interested in learning more. Mom was startled. The idea of her son studying the sport seemed impossible.

But the sensei knew impossible is nothing.

Like his sister, Jenna, Matthew was adopted and was a challenged baby. Almost immediately, doctors said he needed heart surgery. "We thought it was just a tweak," says Dad, Mark Fulton. "Fine tuning."

But at 10 months, Matthew was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. At age 10, he was diagnosed with dystonia.

I ask Fulton why he and his wife would agree to adopt two challenged babies, especially when they were in their late-40s.

The short answer is love. The long answer is more revealing.

Fulton, an engineer, allows that he and his wife, Barbara, didn't start out specifically trying to adopt challenged kids. He points out that early on they only knew Matthew had the heart problem.

Still, swapping out babies was never a consideration. "For crying out loud," Fulton confesses, "we'd fallen in love with this little kid."

Of the new challenges, Fulton recalls, "We just went, 'Oh my, look at this.'"

Smiling at the memory and armed with a good sense of humor, Fulton adds, "It's not like a toaster that you can return."

Mastering leadership

When you are hit with the type of challenges that Matthew faces every minute of every day, it's tempting to have a never-ending pity party.

But that is not the way Matthew Fulton rolls. Ever.

I ask what it was like to show up at first grade with cerebral palsy. "It really wasn't much of a big deal."

I ask what it was like when he was diagnosed with a crippling muscle disorder. "It was just another thing I had to deal with."

I ask how difficult it is to study karate from a wheelchair. "What," Matthew asks, "do you mean?"

Matthew points out that through karate, "I get to learn self defense and how to protect myself." Plus, he adds, "I've made a lot of friends I like."

On the back of Matthew's wheelchair -- and let's agree an off-road ATV better describes the sturdy machine -- there's a sticker that reads, "Hot rod."

On his white karate gi, there are several patches. One stitched in red letters reads, "Leadership."

There's reason for that.

At exactly 7 p.m., the bell rings and Matthew's class begins. He's first on the floor. Minutes later, he goes to the front of the class and shouts cadence, "One, two, one two."

Each child, each adult punches air in unison.

Next, the class performs kicking drills. Unable to move his legs, Matthew works his arms. To some, his movements may appear jerky, perhaps even out of control. Yet the teenager is slowly gaining control of his body, muscle cell by muscle cell.

Far to one side of the main room, academy owner and director Brad Wenneberg watches. His eyes sparkle. Then they mist.

Becoming a black belt

Different karate masters -- known as "shihans" -- have different styles. With hundreds of students, Wenneberg puts character before kicks.

Consider one of the shihan's favorite quotes, this from karate master Ginchin Funakoshi: "The ultimate aim of karate is not victory or defeat, but perfection of the character of its participants."

Funakoshi died in 1957 at age 88, but his philosophy lives on.

Nearly three decades ago, Wenneberg expanded on Funakoshi's ideas and wrote down five philosophical bricks on which to build his school: care for everybody; become the best you can be; take on challenges; reward people; praise effort.

"We don't tear down," Wenneberg explains. "We build."

As the shihan shares, a student by the name of Chuck Geitner sits in a room taking notes on an adult karate class. Five years ago, Geitner earned his black belt -- at age 84.

Another student is 60 and has special needs. One of the instructors is nearly deaf.

"There is no perfect mold for a black belt," Wenneberg offers. "It is far better to use your mind instead of your physical skills."

Wenneberg says that self-control, discipline and self-confidence are markers of a true black belt. He notes those are the same skills that helped Matthew achieve that level.

Matthew agrees he's come a long way since starting karate. Not only has his confidence bloomed, he has more focus.

After graduating high school, Matthew -- who dictates his essays to an aide -- plans to attend Cal State Fullerton and earn a nursing degree. "Because I have a nurse myself," he says, "I want to give back."

Yet already, Matthew gives back.

A year after Matthew started karate, Mark Fulton joined his son. Today, Dad helps lead classes. Father and son also share the same sense of humor.

"I had to learn to defend myself against a kid in a wheelchair," Dad says, smiling. "Go figure."

Matthew beams.


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