Champion Seven Star Dragons Karate teaches kids more than kicks and punches

'It constantly forces you to challenge yourself'

CINCINNATI -- Amina Issa was only 4-and-a-half when she began taking karate lessons, but she remembers exactly why she wanted to start.

“I just wanted to learn how to be not afraid of nobody and powerful and bold,” she said.

That’s exactly what karate master Terrell Davis has taught her.

“It’s helped me a lot,” said Amina, who is 8 and recently won Ohio State Grand Champion for ages 12 and younger in the 2017 Elite Martial Arts Challenge. “It just feels like I can go anywhere. Anybody can mess with me, and I don’t care because I know what to do.”

Amina Issa

A former parole officer for the state of Kentucky, Davis has been teaching kids karate at Cincinnati Recreation Commission facilities since 1985 and has expanded the locations where her Seven Star Dragons Karate operates since she retired from the Kentucky Department of Corrections in 1999.

“I saw that there was a great need to work in our community with young people to deter them from any type of involvement in the criminal justice system,” Davis said.

Her results speak for themselves. Seven Star Dragons is the 2017 Elite Martial Arts Challenge Ohio State Champion, winning the title by having more first place wins than any other school. And the school is ranked fourth nationally out of 73 teams that were tracked this year as part of the Professional Karate Commission, she said. Seven Star Dragons and 10 of its students will be honored at the commission’s national banquet in Indianapolis on Sept. 2.

Master Terrell Davis, left, instructs students at North Avondale Recreation Center. Photo by Philip Lee | WCPO

More importantly, though, the lessons that Davis teaches have made her young students more successful in other parts of their life, too.

‘A completely different person’

Jared Belmont has been taking karate classes with Davis since just before he turned 10. Now 17, Jared is a second-degree brown belt and won Ohio State Grand Champion for ages 13 and up in the 2017 Elite Martial Arts Challenge.

“Honestly, I feel like if I’d never joined karate, I would be a completely different person,” he said.

When he was younger, ADHD was a big factor in his life and contributed to trouble in school and bad grades, Jared said. But now he has a 4.01 GPA, and is taking two college credit courses this year along with playing on the varsity soccer team. He credits the discipline he learned in karate for the change, he said.

“It constantly forces you to challenge yourself,” he said.

Jared Belmont

Kevin Hartnell wrote in a testimonial for the Seven Star Dragons website that his daughter has shown improvement in her grades, concentration and her understanding of respect and courtesy since she started taking lessons with Davis.

For her part, Miranda Hartnell, who is 8, said she has stuck with karate for the past three years because it’s fun.

“I have, like, my shelves are overflowing with trophies,” she said. “It’s fun, and it keeps me active.”

Miranda Hartnell practices at North Avondale Recreation Center. Photo by Philip Lee | WCPO

At a recent practice at North Avondale Recreation Center, 12-year-old Paul Casteel showed off the belt he received for placing first in the Cincinnati All-Stars competition.

Daven Gibson, who is also 12, got a first place at the competition, too, in a different division.

That success builds confidence, Davis said, and it also shows young students what they can achieve when they focus and work hard.

A focus on discipline

About 80 percent of the students who take lessons with Davis have improved their grades, she said, and 90 percent of her students who have achieved black belt status have gone on to college. Some have become doctors or lawyers and others have successful careers at big companies.

“They have to be goal-oriented, so when they do go to college, they stay focused,” she said. “They’re not distracted.”

Those lessons made a world of difference for Eric Cook, he said.

Now 29 and a black belt, Cook was just 4 years old when he first started taking karate classes with Davis.

“I’m assuming my mom was trying to build up some confidence,” said Cook, who was small for his age.

Cook said he loves karate for the discipline and self-confidence it instills. 

“That helped me make it through law school,” he said.

Michael Hanavan was Davis’ first student to earn a black belt. Now 45, Hanavan started taking lessons when he was 13.

Eric Cook, left, and Michael Hanavan are among the black belts who began training with Davis when they were kids.

He grew up in Winton Place, which he described as “kind of a rough neighborhood,” being raised by a single mom. Now he’s a successful salesman for Microsoft, and he gives Davis a lot of credit for what he has achieved.

“If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be where I am,” he said. “It’s what all the kids learn in here that can be applied to their lives outside. She’s focusing more on the kids’ discipline than their fighting.”

But Davis balances that focus on discipline with a positive, nurturing spirit, he said.

Davis said she might be a bit more nurturing than the average male karate instructor.

“I teach with a lot of love, a lot of patience and encouragement,” she said.

But she also is firm and requires her students to work hard, which translates into other parts of their lives, too.

“They want to be the best they can in everything that they try to do,” Davis said. “That’s what I’m really proud of.” 

In all of her years as a karate master, Davis has taught hundreds of children and adults at the North Avondale Recreation Center and other locations, including several Cincinnati public schools, churches and YWCA and YMCA facilities. At 59, Davis said doesn’t envision stopping any time soon.

That’s good news for Amina, who had nothing but good things to say about Davis.

“She’s nice, bold, smart, artistic, strong,” Amina said, “and nice. Like I said before.”

Amina Issa practices her moves at North Avondale Recreation Center. Photo by Philip Lee | WCPO

More information about Seven Star Dragons is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for nearly 20 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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