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Pioneering Female Black Belt Refuses to Step Aside

August 25, 1995

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Nina Chenault refused to sit down.

Time and time again in a Los Angeles dojo, Chenault was told she could not spar with the men in her karate class. Never mind that she was a second-degree black belt. Never mind that she had sparred with men many times before in the Minneapolis dojo where she trained.

She still was a woman, and 20 years ago that was enough to keep her from fighting in most karate classes.

``He made me sit down like three times, and all these women are just aghast,″ Chenault said of the instructor. ``They can’t believe that I’m disobeying, not sitting where I was told to sit. My God, I was a black belt.

``So the next time I get up, he comes up to me and says, `OK, if you’re going to spar, at least let me show you how to hold your arms.′ Up to that point, they really didn’t want to coach the women at all. They just would rather they go sit down.″

Chenault’s persistence that day in Los Angeles is typical of her 25 years in the male-dominated Shotokan karate, a traditional style that is thousands of years old. As her determination wore down the instructor, so too has it helped bring new opportunities to women.

With her relentless drive to improve, Chenault became a pioneer in Shotokan. This May she became a fifth-degree black belt, the first North American woman in the 15,000-member American Amateur Karate Federation to reach that level.

``She went through a lot,″ said Robert Fusaro, a seventh-degree black belt with whom Chenault has trained since 1971. ``She helped us develop the principle that the women could spar, too.″

Chenault, 43, owns her own dojo, the West Bank Karate Club. But she was just looking for an outlet for her teen angst when she enrolled in her first karate class at St. Cloud State in 1970. She had been taking yoga for several years, and found the principles of concentration and mental discipline to be similar.

She transferred to the University of Minnesota the following year and began training six days a week at Fusaro’s Midwest Karate Association. A frustrated athlete as a teen-ager _ there were few sports for high school girls in the 1960s _ Chenault was happy to finally have a physical outlet.

``She really had a lot of spirit in her,″ Fusaro said. ``She showed good coordination and determination on the floor. She wasn’t afraid to get out there and try different things.″

She earned her black belt in 1972, and began making frequent trips to California and other states to train with Shotokan masters. But aside from Fusaro, who was always encouraging, Chenault usually got the same reaction from most men when it came time to spar: Step aside.

``I’d have masters come up and tell me women couldn’t spar,″ Chenault said. ``And I’d say, `Why not?′ They’d say, `Because you’re a lady.′ Their philosophy was that women shouldn’t do it, not that they couldn’t do it.″

After an intense training trip to Japan in 1977, Chenault formed a committee to petition for women’s sparring at national competitions. She and several other women traveled to 30 states and gathered hundreds of signatures, enough to convince Shotokan masters to allow them to do a sparring demonstration in 1983.

Chenault and Katie Wieby of Phoenix locked up in an all-out fight that convinced the masters women could handle the potentially rough bouts. A year later the AAKF added a sparring division for women.

``That, if anything, is the contribution I think I made,″ said Chenault, who won the AAKF nationals in 1983, 1985 and 1989. ``I think I made some impression on the women, that if she can do it, maybe someone else can.″

The AAKF is the largest of about 50 traditional karate groups in the United States. There are about twice as many organizations that teach modern karate, a more aggressive style that includes kick boxing.

Learning proper technique requires years of hard work. The object in traditional karate is to channel the entire body’s entire energy through the point of contact _ much like a golf swing _ and then redirect that energy instantly into another movement.

When expertly done, it is a fluid series of motions that can be compared to ballet or gymnastics. Even though modern karate might look more violent, the traditional form teaches blows that can be more devastating, Fusaro said.

``A lot of the karate that I see on television and in the movies, a lot of it’s hokey,″ he said. ``Especially if you see someone hitting someone four or five times with a good kick. If you get hit in the face with a foot, that’ll rearrange your face.″

For many years Chenault trained after working two jobs. In 1989, after her second training trip to Japan, she opened her own dojo not far from Fusaro’s.

About 150 students train at her club, and Chenault spends most of her time teaching and working to advance karate. She is hopeful it will be an Olympic sport by 2000. Her goal then won’t be to compete, but to work as a judge.

``She’s a good role model,″ Fusaro said. ``She is a great force for the women, that’s for sure.″

End Adv For Weekend Editions Aug. 26-27

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