At an age when aches and injuries cause many to give up martial arts, Dave Wulfing is about push his skills to their limit.
Wulfing, 35, lives with wife and son in Stillwater and works as a patrol officer for the Stillwater Police Department. He took up karate at a club in Maplewood during his early teens, he said, but after becoming distracted by teenage activities, gave it up.
Then, a couple of years ago, he decided to get in shape. Weight training and running didn't excite him, but when he heard his old trainer, Jack Hunt, was running a karate gym in Stillwater, he returned to his old sport, with a vengeance.
"Before joining the regular class, Dave trained with me in private lessons for about one-and-a-half years," said Hunt, a fifth-degree black belt who has run for the past 19 years Jack Hunt's Karate Club in Valley Ridge Mall. "He trained hard to get where he is now."
After passing through a dozen ranks during his training over the past two-and-a-half years, measured by colored belts he's received after passing consecutive tests, Wulfing will face his toughest challenge yet as a martial arts practitioner. At 1 p.m. this Saturday, Wulfing will test for his black belt.
Testing will focus on many areas of Wulfing's training. Among other things, he will demonstrate many memorized moves, called "forms," to show that he can properly execute kicks, punches and other forms of combat. He will show that he can fight with a wooden staff. He will prove that he can kick with precision and that he can block blows.
And perhaps most difficult, Wulfing will take a beating.
"Sparring is a big part of our training," Hunt said. "We use it to test a student's endurance and strength, as well as their will. We get to the point where we ask you to push past your limit. If there's any sign of [Wulfing] giving up, there's a chance he will not pass his exam."
Wulfing agrees. "I must not get put out. I can get knocked down but I must show I will not quit or give up no matter how tired I am. Exams I've seen are pretty intense."
If he passes his test, however, Wulfing will know that he has accomplished something that not everyone can accomplish.
"Am I nervous? Yeah," Wulfing said. "It's a big thing, and something I've worked toward for two-and-a-half years and my toughest test for martial arts to date. But, I know I'm ready."
In a typical week, Wulfing practices at the club three times for one-hour. But since he began preparing for black-belt testing in December, he's practiced four to five days each week at the club and at home every other day.
While one might expect Wulfing's martial arts training to come in handy in his day job, he says they twain rarely meet.
"I haven't had to use it in my job. My karate training has been focused mostly on the sport aspect, while my tactical training from law enforcement,grappling and things like that, is more useful for my job." Wulfing said.
"[But] it's really helped me with my conditioning, stamina and endurance. Obviously, it makes me a little bit better fighter - this is not an image we try to portray as police officers, but that's the reality sometimes," he said further. "It's a good confidence builder, too."
Wulfing said his wife, Paula, has seen him sore, bruised and occasionally with broken fingers and toes, and has become used to it. "But my boys think it's pretty cool," he added. And while few of his coworkers share his passion for martial arts, Wulfing said they're quick with the jokes.
Although he's a latecomer to the sport, few people over age 30 persist in karate, mostly due to injuries, Hunt said, Wulfing says it's better late than never.
"I realized I should have started this earlier for any hope of true flexibility," Wulfing admits. "That and I don't heal as fast as the younger guys. ... [But] I'm much more flexible with my legs, and it's helped with my endurance."
Armand Cohen, a second-degree black-belt who teaches at the club part-time, says Wulfing has made great progress as a martial artist, and agrees that while martial arts can be more difficult for older students, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. It can also be a fun, family activity.
"My son and I started when he was 6 and I was 34," Cohen said. "We trained and tested together for our first-degree black belts in 1999." Then his wife and daughter joined the club. In 2003, the foursome trained and tested together, with the father and son achieving their second-degree black belts and the mother and daughter achieving their first-degree black belts.
Martial arts were they key to Cohen's getting in shape, he says.
"I'm not physically adept at some other activities, but I can think. If I'm allowed to use my mind, I can match up well against many others," Cohen said. "What I like is that [karate] is social, yet it's aerobic, and improves strength, flexibility, speed and yet it requires thinking."
Jack's wife, Jill Hunt, is a second-degree black belt, and also teaches classes at the club, as does Mike Parks, a fourth-degree black belt. Jack Hunt, who turns 45 next month, has practiced martial arts since he was 16 years old.
Prior to working for the Stillwater department, Wulfing worked for Bayport Police Department, and before that, as a communications offer at the Washington County Sheriff's Office. He lives in Stillwater with his wife Paula, and two grade-school aged sons. He grew up in Afton and graduated from Stillwater Area High School in 1989.
For more information on Wulfing's effort, or the karate club, call Jack or Jill Hunt at 651-439-4559. The club is adjacent to the Washington County License Center in Valley Ridge Mall, in Stillwater.
Mark Brouwer is at 651-439-4366 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See photos in this week's Stillwater Courier.