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Karate Kids: Lifelong Lessons in the Dojo Pave Way for Healthy Aging

Liz Merritt
August 14, 2017
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For Chuck and Cheryl Coburn, the path to healthy aging is paved with hard knocks – literally. These Shotokan Karate black belt champions and Baby Booomers have dealt fierce blows throughout their decades of training, competition and instruction in this traditional martial art.

At 67, Chuck Coburn is a 7th degree black belt, sensei – Chief Instructor – and the ISKF Western Region Director of the International Shotokan Karate Federation. His wife Cheryl, who will celebrate her 70th birthday this year, is a 6th-degree black belt karate instructor whose diminutive stature belies the seasoned competitor within.

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Cheryl and Chuck Coburn own Shotokan Karate of Arizona, a martial arts school steeped in tradition.

Together, they own Shotokan Karate of Arizona, a martial arts school steeped in legacy and tradition. “We teach self-discipline and self-confidence,” says Chuck Coburn. “Our students learn to push themselves to become one of the very best. Failure is not really an option here,”

Lure of the Dojo

Roll back the clock to the 1960s. The Vietnam War dominated the headlines. The hippie movement was making love, not war. And the Coburns were college students searching for their dreams.

Chuck Coburn was a “wild and crazy” 19-year-old when he walked into his first karate school. He’d seen Goldfinger at the local theater and was impressed by actor Harold Sakata, who plays Bond’s karate-chopping henchman.

“This was 1969, so the makeup of classes those early years were mostly military guys, tough guys off the streets, guys who wanted to fight,” says Coburn. He was immediately hooked.

Thirty-Eight years under the watchful eye of Sensei Shojiro Koyama, 8th-degree black belt and founder of the Arizona Karate Association, led to a 25-year competitive career. Koyama instilled in Coburn the skills to make karate a lifelong fitness endeavor.

“Sensei Koyama came from a Japanese culture of teaching and training,” Coburn says of his mentor. “You move your ass or you get hit. If you want to get good, you endure,” he smiles. “He made me mentally and physically tough and taught me confidence and leadership skills.”

Karate Kids

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Chuck Coburn leading a recent class at Shotokan Karate Arizona.

In fact, Coburn became tough enough to earn a few extra bucks on the side working as a bouncer at a popular disco with four other karate students. It just so happens his future wife Cheryl was a waitress there. She was immediately smitten with Chuck and his karate persona.

“Chuck and I started dating, and I really admired him and all of his karate skills,” Cheryl says. “They would bring Sensei Koyama into the club, and he was like Bruce Lee to me. He dressed in all black, with jet black hair combed back,” she says excitedly. “I would go down and watch them train at the karate school.”

A Man’s World

In the 1970s, however, very few women entered the dojo and even fewer took part in the sport. Instead, she would travel to tournaments and watch Chuck train with the other instructors. “I saw him compete in one of the most phenomenal tournaments in Los Angeles. I was in total awe.”

Not long after, Cheryl began training in karate, with Chuck as her instructor. To this day, he is her sole sensei. He has guided her competitive career to multiple regional and national titles, including a spot-on Team USA at the 1993 ISKF Pan American Championships and the US team at the Japan Karate Association’s Shoto Cup World Tournament.

“When I was in my competition years, he was tougher on me than anyone else,” she says. “When I walk into the doors of the dojo, I leave my ego outside. I do what he tells me to do at all times. He is my sensei. The minute I walk off the floor, guess who is the boss?” she grins.

Legacy of Tradition

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The Coburns surrounded by advanced karate students ages 50 and up.

Thousands of students have walked through the doors of the Coburns’ dojo over the years. From youngsters to retirees, their students consistently earn accolades – from national championships to one student who, at 16, took home world championships in both kumite (freestyle fighting) and kata (forms).

For the Coburns, creating and extending that legacy of traditional karate drives their passion and desires.

He describes the first day for many students, who enter the dojo intimidated, shy and introverted. “The real challenge in karate is not the athletic challenge,” Chuck says. “If students stay with it, they change mentally, not just physically. We train mind, body and spirit with structure and discipline.”

Cheryl adds, “Karate gives us mental strength. If you train like it is a life or death experience, you become stronger and more focused.”

Strength From Within

Building a legacy comes with its challenges, as well. In 2000, Chuck was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, a liver-damaging disease that disproportionately affects Baby Boomers. In fact, Baby Boomers are five times more likely to have Hepatitis C than other adults.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the reason the disease is prevalent among Baby Boomers isn’t fully known. Many may have become infected from medical equipment before the adoption of universal infection control procedures. Others may have contracted the virus from contaminated blood and blood products before widespread screening virtually eliminated Hepatitis C from the blood supply by 1992.

For Chuck Coburn, time was precious. The virus had advanced and his liver began to fail in 2012. At that point, his only hope was a cure or a liver transplant. With no cure in sight, Chuck underwent a liver transplant on June 30, 2012. A year later, following arduous physical therapy to regain his strength, speed and balance, Coburn was back in the dojo 6 months later.

By early 2013, however, the Hepatitis C launched an attack on his new liver. Thankfully, his doctors knew of clinical trials being conducted on a potential drug to cure the virus. With their help, Coburn underwent the treatment and was completely cured of the disease by that spring.

On Healthy Aging

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Cheryl Coburn and another student listens intently during a training class.

Today, the couple devotes their lives to teaching and mentoring the next generation of karate champions. To continue their rigorous teaching schedule, they set their sights squarely on living healthfully.

They have dropped all meat except chicken and fish from their diets. They eat a diet that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, and they are extremely mindful of added sugars or sodium. “There will be a mass epidemic of liver failure and diabetes in this country. You have to self-educate yourself. “We spend a lot of time reading what’s on the labels,” Chuck says.”

Exercise is also a key part of their days. They train in karate, do additional cardio training and hit the gym for strength training each week. “Humans are not made to be sedentary,” Chuck points out. “We are made to walk, run, bend and lift.”

“One of the things you must remember about karate is it also applies to everyday life,” Chuck says. “Life is a fight. You can’t just give up and be satisfied. You have to have willpower and strength to survive just like we do in karate.”

“We always have to keep challenging ourselves,” Cheryl adds. “We can never become complacent in our training or in life.”

If you are in the metro-Phoenix area and interested in learning more about traditional Shotokan karate, visit Karate Arizona at www.karateaz.com or call 480-205-6003 to take advantage of current summer class specials.

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