Karate is in her wheelhouse

St. Louis Park resident Sandra Obermiller, 60, teaches a student a proper way to kick and block during a class at American Karate Studio in St. Louis Park. She is the head instructor at the studio, which she co-owns. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe) St. Louis Park resident Sandra Obermiller, 60, teaches a class at American Karate Studio in St. Louis Park. She is the head instructor at the studio, which she co-owns. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe) St. Louis Park resident Sandra Obermiller, 60, teaches a class at American Karate Studio in St. Louis Park. She is the head instructor at the studio, which she co-owns. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe)
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St. Louis Park resident Sandra Obermiller, 60, teaches a student a proper way to kick and block during a class at American Karate Studio in St. Louis Park. She is the head instructor at the studio, which she co-owns. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe)

The co-owner of a St. Louis Park karate studio has more than a few years of experience under her sixth-degree black belt.

St. Louis Park resident Sandra Obermiller, 60, has been running the St. Louis Park branch of American Karate Studio, which opened in 1973, for the last 24 years.

Earlier this year, the American Karate Studio in St. Louis Park moved from a location near Cedar Lake Road and Louisiana Avenue to a refurbished former warehouse near other fitness-related businesses near West 36th Street and Yosemite Avenue. American Karate Studio also has locations in Minnetonka and New Hope.

The business locations were early introducers of karate to the West Metro, and forbearers of a spring of other martial arts-related businesses.

“They come and they go and they come and they go,” Obermiller said. “I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere.”

Obermiller became involved with karate after trying out a fitness club for women 30 years ago. She arrived wearing a gray sweatsuit to find her fellow participants were wearing matching headbands and leg-warmers.

“They were perspiring, and I wanted to sweat,” Obermiller said.

She happened to notice a nearby studio that she visited to learn it contained a boxing ring in the back. When two fighters took their headgear off, she realized they were women.

“I said that’s what I wanted to do,” Obermiller said. “I had two brothers, so I’d been training my whole life.”

Although she opted for karate rather than boxing, the incident led to a new life path for her.

When she had earned a green belt, she decided to tell her instructor, Vic Marotta, that she would like to have her own studio.

“No one had ever asked me that before,” said Marotta, who now co-owns American Karate Studio with Obermiller.

He suggested she wait until she had earned her black belt.

“I forgot about it, but she stayed for many years and got her black belt,” Marotta said.

She had become an assistant instructor by then. After she earned the black belt in 1988, Marotta’s St. Louis Park studio had an opening. He said, “She was the perfect fit.”

Both noted that women participating in karate, much less running a studio, was a rarity in those days.

Female sports mainly consisted of intramural volleyball and a powderpuff football game for homecoming that everyone made fun of, Obermiller said.

“That never settled well with me when I was younger,” Obermiller said. “It’s really opened up for women, and I’m so glad.”

Of karate, Marotta said, “When I started in the ‘60s, there were no women, no kids, no elderly people – just men and boys 18-25.”

Obermiller now instructs karate participants of both genders ages 4 to 65, she said.

Popular movies and shows like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers have helped broaden interest in karate, she said.

A recent class consisted mainly of children with another class serving older and more advanced students. Sixteen-year-old Hannah Cowan noted she had been learning karate at the studio since she was 5. She earned her third-degree black belt after eight years of instruction.

Longevity among students is not unusual for American Karate Studio. Obermiller brought out numerous photographs of karate students in their younger days, bringing gasps of surprise from families participating in classes as they recognized other participants who are now considerably older than in the photos.

“Now I’m starting to get the children of my past students, which is really fun,” Obermiller said.

“They’re my family, and they know they can always depend on me for what they want to hear and what they don’t want to hear,” she said with a laugh. “I get very emotional when it comes to my kids.”

Success stories

She said karate can teach children to make and accomplish short-term and long-term goals and build self-esteem. It can help participants channel their emotions and learn to defend themselves as well.

Student Nicolas Mainguy reveals in a video on the business website, americankaratestudio.com, that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, leading him to become frustrated and upset more easily than most people.

“My dad thought it would be a good thing for me to come here to learn to control my anger,” Mainguy said.

When an opponent he is sparring with hits him hard, a teacher can help him with his self-control, Mainguy said.

“I can’t begin to tell you the difference in this child,” Obermiller said. “It will be a very emotional black belt for me to give out.”

Bloomington resident Molly Bellmont said she brought her two young daughters to American Karate Studio because she believes it will help them with their emotional discovery.

“To me, I think of it as emotional and mental health,” Bellmont said. “What an important way for them to learn that now and not be medicated.”

Golden Valley resident Nabil Pruscini began bringing his children to American Karate Studio two years ago, particularly as a way of helping his son focus and stay out of trouble. His son, 9-year-old Anis Pruscini, has begun to focus on becoming a black belt like Obermiller.

“He’s totally changed,” Pruscini said.

Anis said, “Before I was in karate, I was very hyper, and this place really helped me reduce my wildness and it helps me focus, and it helps me in school also.”

His sister, 10-year-old Violette Pruscini, added, “And it’s fun.”

Obermiller said she intends to keep on teaching well into the future, telling one young student she had no intention of settling into a wheelchair anytime soon.

Although some people may think of karate as a violent activity, Obermiller said she wants to create a less violent world by instilling values like respect and self-control.

“We’re the peacemakers,” she said. “I want the world to be a safe place and a good place for many generations to come.”

American Karate Studio is hosting a demonstration and presentation of belts 5:45-9:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at the DoubleTree Minneapolis Park Place Hotel, 1500 Park Place Blvd. in St. Louis Park. Admission is free for black belts, $5 for children 5-11 years of age and $10 for spectators 12 years of age  and older.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]