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End of Black Belt Karate Instructor’s 14 Year Stint

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-11-23

Katherine Loukopoulos, who has been teaching hand-to-hand combat to the military for the last 14 years, is about to leave Okinawa. Before going to take up a teaching post in Germany, she reminisced about her 32 year involvement in the martial arts. It is an unusual story.

She grew up in Greece, where her adoptive father was a policeman. She thinks he was a big influence in the direction of her life later took her. Greek policemen have to do prison duties and Katherine’s first toys were wooden soldiers made by the prisoners. “I never had a doll” she says. During her father’s coffee breaks they used to watch army units drilling and exercising. She wanted to join in and demanded a rifle. A wooden one was made for her and then she drilled with the soldiers every day.

At school she had to recite the epic tales of Homer by heart. These and stories of the Peloponnese wars fired her imagination further towards matters martial.

At the age of 14 Greece’s political turmoils saw her being shipped out of the country for her own safety. She went to New York where her first ambitions were “to be strong and smart”.

At first she danced to keep fit, then at the age of 16 found karate. A Puerto Rican she was chatting to in a park one day invited her to observe his karate class. This sparked her interest and she ripped the karate school listings out of the Manhattan Yellow Pages and began going to look at as many schools as possible. “I could see immediately if a group had discipline” she says.

One class was very militaristic and worked hard but it contained no women. Katherine was determined to get in there and sat outside the door of the school for two months, talking to people as they came in and out. “I’m very friendly” she says. “I can make the stones speak.” Eventually the instructor invited her inside. “I told him my sad story and he allowed me to take free instruction”. Although she had broken the all-male code of the place, she was warned that she would never achieve a black belt. “I was rough and feisty then. I had a chip on my shoulder” she recounts.

Katherine took any sort of work she could get - in bars, restaurants, cleaning, dog walking.

In 1974, her karate instructor Zenko Heshiki , from Hawaai, organized a big exhibition and wanted a demonstration fight. Katherine volunteered and her opponent was to be a big Italian with a third degree black belt.

“I went back to the park where I used to hang out and told some of the hoodlums I knew there that I needed to learn some moves my opponent wouldn’t know.” Some of her friends went to a Shotokan karate school which teaches sweeping moves not emphasized in the other school. She learnt them and during the demonstration bout she side-stepped the Italian, deftly tripped him and swept him over, then punched him while he was on the ground. This was all caught on camera and the man was so humiliated he hasn’t spoken to her to this day. After this it was decided a black belt could no longer be denied her.

Later there was a celebration dinner at which Katherine made the mistake of staying too late. Going to a back room to get a scarf before leaving she was suddenly locked in a room. This was the Italian’s chance for revenge. Twenty of his friends gave her a thorough beating. “I was a total mess. I was hospitalized” she recalls.

After Katherine got out of hospital she went to the number one rival of Zenko Heshiki’s dojo and became an instructor there. In 1979 the new dojo pushed her to go out and do demonstrations. She won the New York City championship and made it into the National Karate Team. For kata or solo defensive and offensive moves she was on the team for seven years. For kumite or combat she was on the team for six years. She lost a year when she was banned for throwing an opponent out of the ring. Until 1985 she received the All American Award 12 times and the All Around Award three times.

Her work at this time was as a confidential investigator for the city of New York. It mostly involved uncovering illegal rent collection but in the course of it she came across numerous other illegal activities, such as drugs and prostitution.

For a year Katherine kept a record of the physical fitness of her colleagues. When she divulged it to the Inspector General she provoked the anger of some of them. But it allowed her to make a proposal to become a physical fitness instructor, to improve the effectiveness of the department. She started giving twice weekly training sessions.

Katherine also picked up educational qualifications in the field of Forensic Psychology, which involved studying deviant behavior.

She always found it a struggle maintaining her finances as well as competing internationally. “I went to night high school, night college and night graduate school” she says. While getting ready for a competition in Taiwan she gave an interview to the New York Post in which she sounded off about the U.S. government’s lack of compassion for amateur sports and uncaring attitude towards the poor. The “supposed enemy” Russia was mentioned.

These comments did not go down well with her city administration bosses and she lost her job as an investigator. From 1982 to 1986 she didn’t work, but learnt about marketing and how to raise money.

During her years on the National Karate Team Katherine had often come to Okinawa to train “during the dead season”. She returned in 1986, intending to stay a year. She got a job as a housemaid for a senior karate student “cleaning all day long” in a wealthy house of 12 and continuing her karate training. “They thought I was too rough” she divulges. “So they put me through finishing school. I know how to wear and fold a kimono, how to sit, make tea etc.”

Her next job was washing dishes in a yakitori restaurant by night. She carried on her training by day. Then she started organizing English classes for the yakitori customers, started making good money and moved into her own apartment.

In Naha the American military presence was not particularly noticeable, but when she discovered there were marines on the island, she came up with a plan to teach them hand-to-hand combat. The proposal was accepted and she started getting up at 3 a.m. to hone the marines’ fighting skills.

“I’m smaller than they are, also of the weaker gender, so it is soon obvious whether my techniques work. For success there have to be casualties. Obviously I can’t kill anyone but if one or two are humiliated and I show I can subdue them, then it’s effective.”

From 1991 to 1994 Katherine taught the Army Special Forces. “I always worked outside and if the weather was bad, so much the better.”

She taught Use of Force at Texas Central College for five years and would be continuing next term if she was not leaving the island.

She developed “an eclectic system” and refines it for when she is teaching law enforcement techniques “when you usually have a partner and military use when you may not. The bottom line is to know what you’re doing and have an element of surprise.”

The post Katherine Loukopoulos is going on to is with City Colleges of Chicago who run a distance learning program for the military and Department of Defense throughout Europe.

Should she however tire of pen pushing, a place is waiting for her in the country of her birth, as an instructor at the Hellenic Army Academy in Athens.

While this article was being written Fotios Loukopoulos, Katherine’s father, died aged 86 on November 17 2000. As was mentioned, he was a source of much of her inspiration. She would like to dedicate this story to his memory.

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