After breaking a wooden board in two on separate attempts with her fist, foot and elbow...
After successfully free-sparring several of her black-belt classmates one at a time, two at a time and three at a time...
And after adequately answering several questions about martial arts in an oral exam...
After all that, Stephanie McKay, 42, of Terre Haute became the first fifth-degree Master black belt in Isshinryu Karate in Master Steve Walden’s class, which took place Tuesday evening inside the Girl Scouts building in Fairbanks Park. The class is affiliated with Walden’s Wellness & Fitness Dojo.
At the end of the test, Walden and a panel of judges went into a private room. When they re-emerged, they unanimously declared McKay worthy of fifth-degree Master status and presented her with a certificate.
A 1992 graduate of Terre Haute South Vigo High School, McKay didn’t play organized sports as a youngster.
She studied graphic design at Indiana State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1996.
“I discovered martial arts [in the mid-1990s],” McKay told the Tribune-Star before her test. “I started with Jim Williams. I trained with him for a while. Then I joined the [U.S.] Army Reserves.
“When I came back, I got a part-time job. Unfortunately, the job that I had interfered with my martial-arts training. I missed a few years, then I got back into it in 2001 with Isshinryu, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years.”
The 5-foot-7 McKay became obese as a young adult, topping out at 240 pounds, so disciplined exercise was just what she needed.
“I was quite heavy-set,” admitted McKay, who currently weighs an in-shape 160. “I run and I do CrossFit training now too. ... I kinda found myself. I decided I liked being active. My husband [Chad] did encourage me. It’s kinda just become a part of me. ...”
Her original Isshinryu instructor was Jim Fox, who helped her earn her second-degree black belt in the late 2000s, then she turned to Walden in 2010. From there, she stepped up to third degree (in 2011) and fourth degree (in 2013), leading up to Tuesday.
“You have to be a lot more proficient at kata execution [choreographed movements that are memorized] and just general knowledge,” McKay said, explaining how much better one must be to jump from fourth degree to fifth-degree Master.
“I’ve spent a lot more time instructing, working with young students who are coming in as white belts and training them and taking them through their rankings ... just a lot more responsibility to the dojo [in recent years] and furthering not only my martial-arts experience but everybody else’s who comes in.”
It should be noted that McKay did not contact the Tribune-Star asking for a story to be written about her. A friend did.
“It’s kinda common with martial artists,” she explained. “We don’t really seek glory. We’re humble by nature, I guess. We don’t really announce it, for a few reasons. One of them is, sometimes when you announce you’re a martial artist, people want to challenge you. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, why don’t you show me something?’ So we find that it’s best not to boast about being a martial artist, not that we’re not proud of it. ... I don’t hide it, especially if somebody asks about it. But I don’t announce it from the rooftops.”
McKay’s future goal is to become a seventh-degree Master black belt in Isshinryu Karate.
“Master Walden and I have discussed it,” she said. “He would like to see me get to my seventh grade. He’s an eighth degree, so he would like to see me promoted up through the ranks, at least to seventh degree.”
Walden believes she’s capable of going that far. He even revealed an additional goal that he said he has never mentioned to McKay.
“When I retire, I can foresee her taking this school over, her and the [four] other black belts together,” he said. “To be as dedicated as Stephanie has been is really rare.
“She’s progressed by leaps and bounds. Stephanie is the epitome of what I’m looking for in a Master. She’s calm, quiet, patient and yet when she has to step up to the line and deliver in free sparring, she can do that. She’s very good with the kids. She’s good with all ages.”
Walden also acknowledged how rare it is for a female to reach this level. She is his first fifth-degree Master black belt — male or female — in 35 years of being an instructor.
“One in 400 people who start karate make it to black belt [including men and women],” he said. “In general, women are actually better martial artists because women are not as strong and they use their brains and do the techniques that karate offers, where men often try to muscle through.”
McKay and her husband, whom she married in 2004 (the same year she received her first-degree black belt), run a full-time business, Graphic FX Custom Design & Screen Printing at 1130 Walnut St.
David Hughes can be reached at 812-231-4224 or at email@example.com. Follow David on Twitter @ TribStarDavid.