My Journey to Black Belt, by Cynthia Soszka

My Journey to Black Belt

I started Kenpo Karate in December of 2011 at the age of 34. That may not seem old to some, but after dancing 5+ days a week, for 10 years of my childhood, my body sure felt old. After I stopped dancing at age 18, I also stopped exercising, gained a bunch of weight, and lost my confidence. It wasn’t until I moved to Grass Valley in 2010 that I decided something needed to change. I saw a flyer for kickboxing in the café at my work and remembered how I’d always wanted to try it, so I went to the dojo and signed up.

For the first six months I attended Mrs. Garcia’s kickboxing class three days a week. Before and after class I saw lots of kids doing karate, and it looked like fun. I really wanted to get my boys into karate, and I figured the best way to do that, would be to lead by example.  So there I was, at age 34 deciding that I’d give it a try. I figured I would do it just long enough to get them interested and then move on to something more suited for an “older” person, like yoga or tai chi.

The beginning was so much fun. There were lots of things to learn and I was always moving forward. Since I had just started, things seemed easy to pick up and remember. I had no goal, I was just having fun. Soon, my oldest son started to attend the tiny eagles class. My youngest son wanted nothing to do with karate. He loved being at the dojo and playing with the equipment, but when it came time for class, he rushed to sit down with the parents. It was a start, and I was happy to continue to lead by example.

The majority of my tests were between 2 and 7 months apart. I was moving pretty quickly through the ranks, but after I became a green belt I realized that I was about to cross a line that I hadn’t realized was there. I knew brown belt was next, and it seemed so intimidating. I really had to reevaluate and decide if I wanted to move on for myself, no matter what my kids’ involvement. I knew I didn’t want to stop doing karate, but I hadn’t fully decided on a goal yet, so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I remember telling Mr. Garcia in one of my earlier tests that anyone can be a black belt, they just have to make the choice. At the time I fully understood what I was saying, but I had no idea how hard that choice was going to be. I’m the type of person who really doesn’t like to fail, so I wanted to be sure I could accomplish that goal before I made the choice.

While I was a green belt, Mr. Garcia convinced me to attend the 50th Anniversary International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California. He said he would go if I did, so I signed up to compete in forms with Long 3. Shortly after I signed up, Mr. Garcia informed me that he wasn’t going to be able to make it anymore, but that Mrs. Garcia was still going. He tricked me! Not really, but I just like to give him a hard time about it anyway. Mrs. Garcia and I had a fabulous time together. I practiced my form any chance I got, even on my lunch break at least three times a week to prepare for that tournament. I video taped my form and then critiqued myself until there was nothing left that I could fix on my own. Almost every week Mr. Garcia would take a look at my form and give me some more instruction. I ended up tying for first place out of 12 international competitors. I had to do my form a second time and eventually took home the gold medal! That was a huge accomplishment for me and not something that I would have imagined possible.

Shortly after, during our annual fair demo that year, Mr. and Mrs. Garcia surprised me and presented me with my 1st degree brown belt. I still had a bunch of techniques to learn, and still hadn’t consciously made the choice to move ahead, but they felt that I deserved that belt because of what I had just accomplished. That gave me the jump start I needed to move forward again. It was painful for me to wear a belt I felt like I hadn’t earned. My first class as a brown belt, and every week thereafter, I would ask Mr. Garcia to teach me a new technique. I flew through those techniques and ended up “testing” shortly after. It wasn’t a standard test, but more like “ring of fire” just to be sure that I knew the material. I never had to spar, but I was okay with that because I knew that we were allowed one brown belt test without sparring.

After I felt like I had earned that belt, I began to slow down again and wonder if I would ever be ready to make the choice to become a black belt. I couldn’t see the path ahead and was very concerned that I would disappoint Mr. and Mrs. Garcia, but again I continued to put one foot in front of the other. After all, someone wiser than me once said, “A black belt is a white belt that never gave up”, and I wasn’t giving up. It was 9 months before I tested for and received my 2nd degree brown belt. Once again, I was one step closer to black, and still hadn’t made the choice. I just couldn’t imagine it in my mind. There was too much to learn and not enough time to focus on karate, while still working a full time job and taking care of my two boys.

I moved along at a snails pace and finally tested for my 1st degree brown belt 10 months later. It was a major disaster for me! An hour and a half into the test I was so weak I could barely stand and I felt like I had the flu. This had never happened to me during any of my other tests before. To make matters worse, Sigung LaBounty ( was there to witness this disaster. At some point Mr. Garcia and I consulted in the back room where he asked me if I wanted to continue. I chose not to continue. It wasn’t just because I was physically exhausted and could no longer stand, but because I didn’t want to earn my belt that way. I remembered the feeling of wearing a belt I didn’t feel like I had earned and didn’t want to feel that way again. I went home with my head hanging and cried. I’m not a crier, so that gives you an idea of how terrible I really felt. Within the next couple of days I came down with the flu and was out sick for the next week. I did eventually determine the actual reason for my impaired immune system and weakness that day, but that’s a story for another day.

I managed to get back to class and start preparing to test again. I was eventually scheduled to re-test with Xabi on May 14, 2016. During that time, I was spending much of my free time as a dummy for Mr. Garcia to help him prepare for his Planas patch test. This was a very big deal, as Mr. Planas only grants this patch to students that possess the required knowledge and ability to perform the system to his satisfaction. Very few people have earned this patch, and Mr. Garcia is one of them. As my test date approached I decided I wasn’t ready to test, so Xabi would be testing alone. Not only was I not focused on my own karate, but I was also very afraid of another epic failure. The morning of Xabi’s test I felt so relaxed and relieved that I wasn’t the one testing, but when I got to the dojo and took my seat next to Mr. Garcia I felt disappointed. I leaned over and told him that I was a little disappointed I wasn’t getting my test over with that day. He turned to me and said, “All you have to do is go stand next to Xabi. What’s the worst that could happen?” I suddenly wasn’t afraid anymore. I had already survived one epic failure. Would another really kill me?

Thank goodness I will never know. I managed to pass that day without my standard month long cram session before hand, and even felt pretty good about my performance. Now I really needed to make the choice! I was learning black belt techniques and still moving forward, but without being able to see my path. I was racking my brain trying to figure out what came after black belt. I knew I would be Mr. and Mrs. Garcia’s first black belt, if I passed, and that the day would be just as important to them as it was to me. I really didn’t want to let any of us down and become a disappointing black belt.

Shortly after a Huk Planas seminar in Chico in March of 2017, my path finally revealed itself to me. Huk asked the same types of questions that he always does and it just struck me as silly that no one ever really knew the exact answers. To be fair, I didn’t know the exact answers either. I realized it’s because the answers are spread over thousands of notebooks in the hands of different people. I have always been an avid note taker, but didn’t generally share them and only reviewed them briefly before a test. For some reason, I had a burning desire to send Huk a message and ask him if he might be interested in working with me to write a book where all of his knowledge was laid out in a logical order as a sort of teacher’s manual. To my surprise, he didn’t say no. He said that he would be happy to help when we were together at the various  seminars I attended. I ended up creating a small “book” that consolidated the last five and a half years of notes that I had already typed up for myself. I emailed it to Mr. Planas for review and then scheduled a private lesson with him to refine the rules and principles section. The book is still a work in progress, but Mr. Garcia agreed to let it serve as my black belt thesis.

Once I could see what came after black belt a whole new world opened up for me. I could actually visualize myself kneeling before Mr. Garcia and bending over to touch my forehead to my new black belt. I decided that if I was going to become a black belt, I might as well do it with style, as Mr. Garcia would say. I sat down and wrote out all of the things that I could do to prepare in every way possible for this test. I chose to get up at 4:30 in the morning to run on the treadmill and study my notes before work. I also attended all of my karate classes, showed up for sparring, started teaching a kickboxing class, and worked on my own karate before and after each of those classes. I even created audio recordings where I called techniques and basics out for myself so that I could run through them in my head while I was driving or on my lunch break at work. Tony, Jasmine, and Mr. and Mrs. Garcia were also kind enough to work with me when they had the time to dummy for my techniques. I even invited Sigung LaBounty to my test, so that I might redeem myself from my epic failure. I was going to make sure I was ready for one of the biggest days of my life.

Every minute of that preparation was worth the effort. On the morning of my black belt test Mr. Garcia sent me a text message to ask me if I was ready, to which I replied, “I’ve never been more ready”. It was true. I had done more preparation than ever before, for anything in my life, and couldn’t imagine having done even ONE more thing to prepare for that day. In fact, I was so prepared, I knew that if I didn’t pass this test, I never would. I was FINALLY ready to choose to “come and get” my black belt. On May 6th of 2017 I received my first degree black belt, just weeks before my 40th birthday. It was a difficult four and a half hour long test, where I had to keep reminding myself to go on no matter how tired I was or what technique I had just done incorrectly. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I tend to fall apart when I screw up. The most difficult part of that test was keeping it together when I didn’t do something perfectly.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned on this journey is that it’s okay not to be perfect. No one is, and you will likely drive yourself crazy trying to become perfect. I’ve also learned that if you don’t give up, and keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will reach your destination. And although I eventually made the choice to become a black belt, it was the most difficult choice I have ever made, and it seemed impossible right up until the day of the test. As fate would have it, on that day at the top of my daily journal was a quote by Nelson Mandela that said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Looking back now, it turns out that it wasn’t really just one choice, but lots of little choices. Each day I chose to go to class or train on my own to improve my skills, even when I didn’t feel like going. Those small daily choices made all the difference in the world.

Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Garcia for your patience, support, and teaching skills, while guiding me on this amazing journey.  Thank you to all their other students that helped to make me a better martial artist. And last but not least, thank you to my amazing husband who has supported me without fail on this journey,  and cared for our boys without complaint while I was out training.

Cynthia Soszka