Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, January 25, 1999

Winsted Karate Club aims to be the best

By Luis Puga

Do not try this at home.

Dr. James Neff, director of the Winsted Karate Club, positions his chin forward. Louis Stifter, chief instructor of the Winsted Karate Club, is facing him.

Suddenly, Stifter releases a fury of punches at Neff's face. Each punch is very rapid and his gi (the karate uniform) snaps from the speed of the blow.

Neff doesn't even flinch. He knows that Stifter, a fourth degree black belt, will control his blows no matter how hard or fast he punches. Each blow lands between an inch and an inch-and-one-half from the protruded chin.

This is a demonstration of control, one of the many aspects of karate that is taught at the Winsted Karate Club.

Started by Al and Jeri Morland in 1982, the club was originally sponsored by the Winsted Police Department in an effort, according to Neff, to give the youths in Winsted something to do.

However, with a number of black belts and national champions, the club has turned into something more.

Kata

Kata means form in Japanese. In karate, kata is a series of sequential punches, kicks, and blocks that students are taught repetitively.

They are repeated so often that the student reacts instinctively when attacked.

"You don't have to think. You just react. Just like you train your foot to hit the brake at the right time," said Neff.

The type of karate that is taught at the club is called Shotokan Karate. It is a form that traces back to the early 1900s in Japan.

Its founder was a man by the name of Gichin Funakoshi, who learned in Japanese occupied Okinawa.

"He learned it from some of the old masters back when karate was illegal in Japan. It was always secret. They'd do it at night because the government of Japan didn't allow weapons or martial arts to be trained in Okinawa," Neff said.

In 1923, the emperor of Japan saw a demonstration, and was so impressed that he ordered that it become a mandatory athletic class in schools.

Neff joined the Morlands for their first class in 1982. He had been training in St. Cloud when he saw the ad in the paper for the new club.

In 1983, Stifter became a member. He had been introduced to karate through Holy Trinity's Snowfest week.

A year later, the Morlands left, and Neff became the chief instructor. By 1988, Neff stepped aside to become the director, and Stifter was assigned chief instructor.

As black belts who have achieved fourth and fifth degree respectively, Neff and Stifter are not only well-versed in the basics and applications of karate, they are the only ones in the area.

Kumite

Kumite is one of two types of competition in karate. The other is kata, which is competition of forms.

Kumite is sparring and participants are awarded a point or half point for a good, legal blow. The decision is up to five judges.

The Winsted Karate Club is well versed in kumite. Over the years, it has produced an impressive number of black belts in a sport that has a high drop-out rate.

Moreover, many of its students have gone on to compete nationally and internationally.

One of the first students was Neff's daughter, Carla, who competed as a black belt at the national competition in Pittsburgh. She was joined by Stifter and two competitors from Howard Lake, Rob Johnson and Chris Schmidt. Stifter, who was 17 at the time, placed sixth in the kumite competition.

"We went from there and we just set a goal to be one of the best in the country," said Neff.

Other alumni include Rob Johnson who competed with the U.S. team in Japan. Carla Neff also competed in Japan and was the gold medalist in the women's 18-21 year-old rank at the Pan-American Games.

She went on to train with the U.S. Olympic team in their training center in Colorado. Later, a group from the midwest was invited to train there as well, and Stifter was made the assistant coach.

Neff added rather casually, "We were picking Junior Olympic championships along the way."

However, Neff said that the big break came when Stifter won the national championship in 1993. He was then selected for the U.S. Karate team and went to England to compete in the Goodwill Games.

Then it was on to the world championships in Germany. Neff accompanied him as team physician.

"Most of the injuries were in the jaw," he said.

The U.S. had come up against Germany, which had won three of the last championships. The Germans expected they would face the previous world champs, the Swedish.

However, the U.S. had beat the Swedish team to face Germany. The Americans had been consistently beaten in their first match, and decided to send out Stifter this time first.

"They [the Germans] were really surprised to face the United States," said Neff.

"Other than winning the national championships back in 1993, it's probably the most excited I've ever been," Stifter recalls.

Stifter won his match, and the U.S. came in second. Neff beams with pride as he recalls how close the team came to winning.

Kihon

Kihon means the basics.

In a class, a student would learn kihon, kumite, and kata to combine these into his/her working knowledge of karate.

However, the basic training of karate is not just fighting, according to Neff. For students, the rewards can be anything from coordination, to discipline, or confidence.

Students are sometimes referred to the school by guidance counselors.

"We enjoy watching the kids change," said Neff.

Stifter observes that they often grow in maturity. Even those who left the program, remarked to them later how they got something out of the training.

While karate does include fighting, the two instructors don't necessarily encourage fights. After all, karate forms start with a self-defense move, such as a block. however, said Neff, "The best way to avoid a fight, is to avoid a fight. People who don't are just stupid."

Stifter added, "If we find out that they (the students) are using karate to bully in school, we just kick them out of the karate club. We won't tolerate it."

Even in kumite competitions, hitting can get one fouled out of a competition. If anything, karate trains the student to control him or herself.

Neff sets up another demonstration. He pulls out the fabric of his gi to form a hump on his stomach. Stifter gets into position as Neff begins to explain.

"If he wants to barely touch that . . ." he said as Stifter strikes the edge of the fabric," he should be able to do that."

"If he wants to go two inches deeper," said Neff. Stifter strikes and there is a small dent in the fabric.

"Now, if he wants to go as deep as my spine, he should also be able to control it," Neff said.

Currently, there are 25 to 30 students in the club. The rates are $20 a month. Neff and Stifter do not get paid, but do it for the love of the sport.

The fees are put in a fund used to finance trips to camps, competitions, or anything the students might need.

At times, the club has held rape prevention classes when interest has been shown.

In general, the club doesn't like taking students younger than seven, but as the evenings class lets out, students of all ages wave good-bye to the two instructors.

In competition, Stifter is looking to make a good showing at a tournament in California in late May. If he does well, he could be selected for the U.S. team to go against the world in Russia.

The club teaches classes on Mondays and Thursdays at Winsted Elementary, from 6 to 8:30 p.m.


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