Still kicking: 80-year-old martial arts instructor has black belt and heart of gold
Dressed in a red uniform at a martial arts studio, Helen Dugan puts an opponent 73 years her junior in a choke hold, then throws him to the mat.
Dressed in a red uniform in a Lenexa, Kan., martial arts studio, Helen Dugan puts an opponent 73 years her junior in a choke hold, then throws him to the mat. Moving like a woman half her age, she pounces on top of him, pinning his arms.
Let other octogenarians take it easy. Despite gray hair, wrinkles and 17 great-grandchildren, Dugan has no intention of going gentle into that good night. Now 80, she is a third-degree black belt in American karate who can still snap off a spinning back kick and break boards and bones with her feet.
"Want to know what my grandsons say about me?" she says as a smile sneaks across her face. "Well, you know how kids in school say, 'My dad can beat up your dad'? They say, 'My grandma can beat up your dad!' "
Laugh if you will. But this karate grandma is no joke.
"I love droppin' 'em," she says about opponents.
She also loves helping them.
For 25 years Dugan has used her skills to train students often turned away by others. Her nonprofit martial arts school, Champs Achievers, specializes in teaching people with special needs. A third of her 60 students are on the autism spectrum. Others have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder and developmental delays. Some have hearing and vision impairments.
"Helen is an amazing woman," said Angela Degnan, whose 3-year-old son, Aiden, joined in October. "She has dedicated her life to children with special needs. My son has special needs, and it's been a wonderful experience for him."
By all accounts, Dugan holds her own in tournaments against far younger opponents and is more than capable of defending herself.
"The headlines would not be pretty when they read, 'Mugger beat up by 80-year-old woman,' " said Mark Schenkelberg, who takes lessons from Dugan with his son, Jacob.
Not all of Dugan's students have developmental delays. Jacob, a 17-year-old, started training with her in 2006 because of an orthopedic problem in his hip. Nine years later that problem is gone.
"Helen's a great teacher and a great person," Jacob said. "I've learned so much through the years. If I were to go to another dojo, I probably would not have as inspiring a teacher as Helen Dugan."
Back on the mat, Dugan is both opponent and instructor to 7-year-old Brayden Bond. The boy is not pinned for long, as he raises his hip and executes a combination of moves to throw his teacher off.
Dugan bounces up and gives Brayden a high-five for a job well done. Brayden smiles as if it were his birthday.
"I'm 35, and I can't do a third of what she does," said Brayden's mother, Serena Faith. "My goal in life is to be Helen when I get to be her age."
Dugan didn't start learning karate until after she and her family moved to the area in 1979. When her two sons took lessons from her son-in-law, Jim Hartley, at a martial arts school, Dugan did, too. Her kids lasted four years.
"Then they discovered girls and got married," she said. "But I was hooked."
Dugan took karate classes for 14 years, earning her black belt at the age of 61. She was also working as a nurse in the Center School District.
Karate strengthened her body and mind and helped her restore the self-esteem she had lost in childhood. Dugan founded her own karate school in hopes of helping others do the same.
You see, Dugan's students aren't the only ones with a disability.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Dugan failed many of her grade school classes. She has a few traits on the autism spectrum, but not enough to be officially diagnosed. Although she was creative, she couldn't do math, had short-term memory problems and struggled to learn in the conventional way.
"It takes me really a long time to learn something," she said. "And if I don't use it, I lose it."
She thought she knew the reason for her problems.
"I just thought I was stupid," she said. "I got passed on probation all the way through grammar school. It wasn't until high school that I realized I had a brain."
She adopted unorthodox study techniques that jibed with the way her brain liked to learn.
"I just started to use my head and worked around things I didn't know."
It worked well enough to get her into a Philadelphia nursing school. After graduation she got a job at a hospital and then married her husband, Barney. (At 82, he still travels the country as a sales supervisor, peddling steel cables and construction equipment. They've been married for 57 years and have five grown children.)
Dugan still struggles with "face blindness" — or prosopagnosia — a condition that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize faces, even of close friends and family.
"I can meet you tomorrow and not know who you are. I didn't know it had a name until I read Temple Grandin's book," she said, referring to the famed professor and autistic activist.
Others with the condition include anthropologist Jane Goodall and neurologist Oliver Sacks. In a 2013 interview Brad Pitt told Esquire magazine that he suspects he has the condition as well.
She has tools to jog her memory.
"It was very embarrassing to me to not know the kids," she said. "Now I'm smart. I take pictures of them, take them home and study the faces. One may have a particularly wide or oval face. And I know which ones those are."
The parents know that caring touch well. Mark Payne, a black belt from Basehor, was one of Dugan's karate teachers. Then his young son, Michael, suffered a head injury and became Dugan's first student.
"Helen took it on herself to give Michael special training above and beyond what any other instructors would do," he said.
Despite balance and vision problems, Michael earned a green belt, eight steps above a beginner.
"Back then there wasn't anybody doing this," said Michael's mom, Patti Payne. "It was Helen who thought about helping these people. Nobody taught her how to do it."
Mother and son took karate together.
"He would fall all the time," Patti said. "But Helen was there to say, 'Hey, let's try this.' She was always trying different techniques and thinking outside the box for how Michael could pass these requirements."
In time, the training improved Michael's balance, self-esteem and life.
But while Dugan is patient, that doesn't mean she's lax, Mark Payne said.
"She will cut them no slack if they are not giving 100 percent of what they can give," he said. "It's not like, 'Oh, this poor disabled boy.' It's, 'You can do better than that!' But at the same time she knows how to pull back when somebody can't. That's what separates her from a normal instructor."
Teaching kids with special needs touches her heart.
"When you see a child get their first belt?" she said. "When you see them get their first trophy? Remember, these are kids who don't get awards. They don't get trophies. And when you see the expression on their face when they get their first trophy, it's such a self-esteem builder. I've had kids take their first steps here."
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