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Tuesday, October 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ability unlimited: Black belt defies odds since birth

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ability Unlimited of Washington


What:


Martial-arts lessons tailored for students with disabilities, although the program is open to everyone.

Where:


Shoreline/South County YMCA.

When:


Sundays at 1 p.m.

Extras:


YMCA membership is $30 per year, while the class is an additional $30 per month. Call 425-485-4999 for more information or to sign up.

EDMONDS — Anyone can purchase a black belt. Plop down about $7 at any martial-arts supply store and the cotton/polyester blended belt of honor made in China is yours.

So, the significance behind the prestigious accessory didn't lie in the 2-inch-wide belt with chain stitching for Jeremy Gregory. The meaning is only understood by peering into a window at the Firdale Village in Edmonds.

Inside a wooden-floored studio with a red-brick back wall and room-length mirror, Gregory demonstrates a karate sequence while imagining sparring with an invisible partner. Wearing a crisp white uniform that accentuates his sky-blue eyes and his newly engraved black belt tied around his waist, Gregory, 23, is like any other "sempai" (senior student).

Except for the wheelchair.

Born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord and nerves fail to develop correctly, Gregory has fought to prevent anything from ending his dreams. He was a multimedal winner at the USA National Karate-Do Federations National Championships in San Jose, Calif., in July. He is the only known wheelchair black belt on the West Coast. And he's the only manual chair sempai (others use power chairs, and the highest ranking in that group is a green belt — three notches below Gregory).

Gregory's path to a black belt began with his love of Jackie Chan and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon. Now he'd like to become the "sensei" (teacher) of his own class of wheelchair and other disabled karate students.

"I've watched Jeremy accomplish a lot in his life," said his grandmother, Millie, who has raised Jeremy since he was a newborn. "I don't think any one thing meant more to him than earning his black belt. He never listened when doctors told him he couldn't do this or that. And now, they're all amazed at what he's doing. They never thought this was possible.

"Most people don't — until they see it."

No gimmes

Gregory, a 1996 graduate of Shorecrest High School, didn't roll into Satori Martial Arts studio and earn a black belt simply for being in a wheelchair.

"No, they beat the crap out of him for two hours and he passed the test like everyone else," said Cheryl Wieser, Gregory's sensei.

But it didn't start on that cool September evening when Gregory faced combat from seven senseis with various martial-arts backgrounds. It took Gregory the average six years to complete the lower grade lessons in preparation for the black belt.

Step number one was how?

How does a person in a $6,000 manual chair that weighs 40 pounds study karate when it's a full-body, contact sport? And where do you go to find out?

"I started with the phone book," said Millie, who pulled out the Yellow Pages and started with the first listing under "Martial Arts."

"I called and described Jeremy's situation and what he could do and that this was something he really wanted to try, so could they help?"

Dead silence.

Then the voice on the other end, whether male or female, would stutter through a polite way to say it's not possible. Probably instructors at the dozen schools Millie called had never seen a person in a wheelchair compete in martial arts. And karate-chop hand movements are a cheap imitation of a sport with serious philosophical roots.

"No one knew what to do with him," Millie said with an exasperated sigh.

Until Wieser.

Not that Wieser, a 46-year-old black belt in weapons, had done this before. When told Gregory would be added to her class of able-bodied students, Wieser started with a solo meet-and-greet that looked like a duel at high noon.

Wieser stood, faced Gregory in his wheelchair and stared.

And stared. And stared.

"Both of us were sizing each other up and I'm thinking, 'How am I going to do this?' " Wieser said.

Finally an icebreaker — surgeries.

Wieser, a former softball player, has had eight surgeries ranging from her hips to shoulders and she can't put much sustained pressure on her left knee. Well, Gregory topped that easily with his 30 surgeries, ranging from inserting a torso-length rod in his back to a tube extending from behind his ear to his chest to help drain the fluid that builds up in his brain.

Wieser figured if martial arts could be adjusted for her bum knee, she could tweak it for Gregory. Plus, her emphasis is self-defense — doing enough to escape danger.

"He's disabled," Wieser said. "If he stands around and tries to talk like you see in the movies, of course he's going to get killed. I'm about self-defense and believing in yourself. Jeremy doesn't need to prove anything to anybody. In competition, you do enough to get out of danger or win and that's it. Martial arts isn't about showing off."

The way Wieser saw it, Gregory did have legs in a sense. They're his wheels.

As he demonstrates moves, a crescent moon kick is replaced with Gregory kicking up his right or left wheel and sharply swinging it around. Double-front kicks are both wheels charging at you twice. And the arm movements are the same, except that Gregory is lower and needs to aim at an opponent's waist or hips.

"And his chair is a weapon," Wieser said. "I always tell him to use it and just roll people over."

In other words, Gregory is not treated like a Faberge egg. His grandmother cringes as Wieser and Gregory demonstrate he's not weak by tossing Gregory to the ground so he has to quickly get back in his wheelchair and defend himself. It's almost too easy a challenge for Gregory.

Still, that didn't mean others wanted to spar with the budding student. Other sempais were afraid of the chair, so their fake punches were an extra foot away from Gregory. Padding was added to the lower bars where Gregory's legs are normally held together with Velcro because the left is stronger than the right.

At first Gregory was only sparring with younger kids because they are the same height. As more became comfortable with the idea, adults twice the size of Gregory became his competitors.

During his testing for the black belt, Gregory ran through his forms and had to verbalize what the foot movements would be for an able-bodied student. He broke a 1-by-1-inch piece of pine with his elbow on the third try, and sparred with several sensei, including one in judo, who lifted Gregory by his feet.

"I stopped it right there, though," Wieser said, explaining that the tube that runs from Gregory's head to his chest can be easily snapped, which would be fatal. "Yeah, my eyes got big and I decided that was enough."

Afterward, Gregory was asked what it means to be presented with a black belt engraved with his name in gold Japanese characters. He couldn't find the words.

"(Karate) has made me more confident in myself," said Gregory, who also notes that it has awakened the muscles in his pelvis so he no longer has to keep track of when to use the restroom. Now, he can feel when it's time.

"It's given me more self-esteem. But originally I got into this because I wanted to teach others and let them know there's nothing you can't do."

Michelangelo

It's amazing Millie's hair isn't gray.

"My hairdresser says the same thing all the time," said Millie, 65, as she fluffs her sandy-brown hair.

When Gregory was born June 1, 1980, Millie was given the full list of things the newborn would not be able to do, including walk or live beyond 20. Gregory was running with crutches at 2½.

His mother, Millie's daughter, decided she couldn't handle Jeremy, and left him with Millie as a newborn.

"It's always been me and Jeremy," said Millie, who divorced her husband long ago.

And boy, did he give his grandmother a workout. Whether it was the fight to be in tumbling school (yes, he did a somersault once), watching the boy shimmy up ropes, or ski down slopes without a guide, Gregory has always been a daredevil.

"We'd fight all the time about what he shouldn't do," she said.

"I'd do them anyway," he interrupts.

"Finally, I told him to ask his doctors and if they said it was OK, then fine," Millie finished.

The love of martial arts began with a cartoon character named Michelangelo. Outfitted with an orange bandana-like eye patch and nunchaku, Michelangelo would fight evil with the other "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" on Saturday mornings.

Gregory would replicate this with empty toilet rolls and string as his nunchaku and he would make his way around his Shoreline home battling invisible bad guys.

At the USA National Karate-Do Federations National Championships in July, he won a silver medal in short weapons — nunchaku.

"He's amazing," Wieser said. "We hate to treat him like a circus show, but unless you see him do it you never believe that he is like any other student. He's just in a chair."

Knowing the benefits, Gregory wants to give back. Wieser worked with the YMCA to set up a program called Ability Unlimited of Washington, which is a class tailored for students with disabilities, although all are welcome. Currently there are four students, including Gregory.

While he works as a clerk in the federal building in Seattle, he hopes to also teach martial arts someday.

"Something is coming from up there that's helping me through this, it's not all me," Wieser said as she pointed to the heavens. "I'm just along for the ride and it's been real fun."

With Gregory at the helm, why wouldn't it be?

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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