Senior Eli Esry aims a high kick at his sister’s head. His straight black hair falls down his lower back, and smack. He makes contact with the pad in her hand. His left fist snaps into a left hook to the other pad. Again. Switch sides.
Three years of six hours a week in the studio later, the kick-then-punch succession, one of the formations that Eli trains, is a reflex. Eli has been coming back to lightweight kickboxing champion-turned teacher Wane Swords’ studio in Merriam since he was a sophomore; his progress is evident. Now able to kick higher and anticipate better, Eli has seen his progression in the studio affect his life in ways he didn’t anticipate.
“It’s like if you’re a basketball player and you make a three-point shot,” he said. “You really feel empowered, you feel amazing and it’s what makes you feel alive.”
He still spends his free time playing any video game he can get his hands on. He still considers himself a slacker student, and his favorite class is still band where he plays the clarinet. He still hasn’t felt the need to do anything but ‘trim’ his hair. What’s changed is his attitude. He now knows that there is something that he’s great at. He’s lost 20 pounds and gained more than the ability to imitate a Chuck Norris-style roundhouse kick; he’s gained confidence, self-assurance.
Now, his response is more ‘go ahead, see what happens’ instead of reserved when he feels confronted. Eli thanks the atmosphere he trains in for that progression. Swords’ guidance in teaching him how to use different martial arts styles from Muay-Thai to Aikido to Kempo keeps him interested. The dynamic between Eli and his sister, 2009 East graduate Ashley Esry who found Swords’ business and trains under him with Eli, keeps him at ease and focused.
Eli trains in Swords’ philosophy; he believes that one martial arts style alone isn’t complete, and that any training is worthless if it can’t be used in real life. That mindset lets Eli feel like he can bring anything he learns with Swords out of the studio along with the knowledge that he excels at something.
Adding to the lightness that Eli thrives in, Swords cracks jokes about forcing Eli to train unbalanced on his off-foot. Fighting his sister adds a heightened sense of competition and a reason to push himself even more. But it’s more than just a desire to come out on top; it’s a drive to get better. They can trade techniques, laugh and keep going. Swords says that he likes to keep the class relaxed and fun, but Eli and Ashley know that they’re going to get better.
As he got better, the way he looked at and interacted with people around him changed as well. He was used to his hands clamming up and not being able to speak when in a group of strangers. Now that he knows he excels at something he says he finds himself able to hold a conversation with anyone. Less self-consciousness leads to an increased presence in class, where he now raises his hand to speak his mind whenever he has the chance.
Eli’s class of two means that he gets the attention he needs to make sure he understands each form before they moves on. Swords might plan a session filled with 50 new moves to learn, but there’s no hesitation if Ashley or Eli don’t have it down. The rest of that session will be spent making sure they understand.
Eli says that those technical, step-by-step formations are nice, but they aren’t directly translatable into a real-life situation. So he trains in successive moves to be able to take it apart and improvise against an attacker. Even with sophomores messing around with fake punches in Team Games class, he’ll now employ his training in responding with a block and a punch next to their head instead of drawing back.
But what makes Eli come back week after week is the way fighting a new person makes him feel. He says there’s a noticeable difference between fighting with Ashley and fighting with Swords, and that difference is what keeps him from getting bored. Swords can connect Eli to new people to fight besides himself and Ashley — the exhilaration that comes with a new opponent is what draws Eli to fighting and makes him never want to give it up.
The important part for Eli is getting to pursue and broaden his experience with fighting, effects outside the studio are really just added bonuses. He says that some people get their exhilaration from acing a test or scoring a goal; the difference with him is that he gets it from fighting a person that can challenge him and help him grow.
With Swords, everywhere but the groin is fair game in a sparring match. Instead of limiting contact to the chest, allowing Eli to know what it’s like to get hit in the face. And that’s what he wants. He wants to learn how to fight in real-life in real-life circumstances. As far as he’s concerned, the rest is useless.
“That helps you learn how to take a punch,” Eli said. “If you know you can take one, you don’t freak out on the street when you take one.”
Eli knows how far he’s come because he can see the effects that lie beyond how well he can block his sister’s high kick. Swords’ pride in his students’ progression shows on his Facebook page, where he publishes videos of them sparring. He remembers when a light hit to Eli’s stomach would leave him wheezing; Swords now finds himself surprised when he lands a solid punch to Eli’s liver and Eli is unfazed.
Eli sees himself continuing with fighting because that would mean new opponents and new challenges. He loves to fight. He’s not afraid to break an arm or sprain an ankle, as long as he can hurt his opponent worse. And that fighter’s mindset, according to him, is what he needs to get into a professional ring.
“I would always think that this person is more popular than me, I’m lower than that person because of that,” Eli said. “When I could fight and when I started to get that confidence I was like ‘I can do something that they can’t and that’s going to take me further in life.’”