A different path: Karate instructor uses eighth-degree black belt to teach life lessons

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By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, MI — As soon as Salomon Villalpando steps onto the mat and takes his glasses off, he becomes another person.

For three nights a week, the eighth-degree black belt wears his red kimono and teaches life lessons using karate.

With an insignia on his back that reads “Train Like a Champion,” Villalpando begins to stretch in front of his Wednesday night class. With his feet wrapped in black tape, the 57-year-old karate instructor bows in front of his students as a sign of respect.

It’s on that mat where Villalpando faces the many difficulties he has come across.

“Karate challenged my life and taught me to go beyond those obstacles,” Villalpando said. “Martial arts keeps me on the right trial, but God’s faith keeps me going.”

The Norton Shores resident first got involved in karate when he was 15 years old after being jumped by some kids who went to his high school.

To this day Villalpando doesn’t know why they did it, but it was the main motivating factor that got him to where he is today.

Salomon Villalpando watches as his son Caleb, 19, perform what is instructed during one of Salomon's karate classes. (Andraya Croft | MLive.com)

Salomon Villalpando watches as his son Caleb, 19, perform what is instructed during one of Salomon’s karate classes. (Andraya Croft | MLive.com)

As the son of a pastor, Villalpando went down a different path than his father – although both would encourage peace and discipline in their undertakings.

When he began at first, it was just a way to defend himself. But as he grew bigger and became faster than others in his class, Villalpando realized he wanted to teach the sport to others.

During a training session in the Norton Pines Athletic Club, Villalpando spent the majority of his time as an attacker – taking an elbow to the head, being thrown to the ground and absorbing punches to the gut – in order to help his students react and counter any attack.

By reliving his days as that bullied 15-year-old who was a little too shy and timid, he was helping others avoid those scary scenarios.

“Karate comes in a variety of ways,” Villalpando said. “There is discipline, respect and self-confidence that are all a part of it.”

Making an impact

As a result of his teachings, Villalpando receives letters from former students thanking him. He’s gone on to speak at seminars and even taught a karate class at Muskegon Community College for years.

In his 42 years in karate, Villalpando has earned more than just his eighth-degree black belt.

His injuries have been chasing him throughout his career. Villalpando has had surgery on his knees, broken his shoulder, clavicle and nose, while also blowing out his Achilles – an injury that was the most difficult to come back from.

Yet, he’s the first one to say those injuries are not a big deal because those scars are a reminder of not only his mistakes, but what he has overcome.

This is something Villalpando tries to pass on to his son, Caleb, who took up karate at a younger age than he did.

“I didn’t want to push him, but I wanted to make sure this was a part of his life,” Villalpando said. “I’m glad he stayed with it.”

His son received his third-degree black belt this summer at the age of 19. The two train constantly and have never been closer as a result.

“He’s a big influence because he got me into karate,” Caleb said of his dad. “I was quite shy as a kid and I wouldn’t come out of my shell and talk to people a lot. Karate has given me more confidence and helped me become the best that I can be.”

In his sessions, Villalpando wears his black belt snug around his waist, which exhibits eight red dashes to symbolize the degree of expertise. His name is written in small, gold letters around the rest of the belt that hangs loosely at his hip.

When he moves with speed and fluidity, the red dashes seem to blend into one single band. Amid the palm attacks, tiger claws and front-snap kicks are brief periods of relaxation and solemnity. It’s easy to see that being on that mat next to his son and the wide array of students is what makes Villalpando the happiest.

“I’ve put everything into this. This is my life,” Villalpando said, smiling afterward. “If I could do this for a living, I would.”

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 2, 2014)

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