Photos from my black belt test

As promised!

Bat Sai (Bassai)


Knife kata (third or fourth “Death”)



Don Kwan (2-person kata)


Self-defense throw


Lock, after a throw


Sparring (and staying) on the mat


Three years ago . . . two days ago.

Has it really been three years?!

Yep. It was three years ago today that I tore my the ACL in my left knee during my exam for 2nd kyup (brown belt).   In my head, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.  But looking at my last update more than a year and half ago, I realize how far I’ve come.

The knee is good.

Very good, in fact.  It stands up to everything that I ask of it.  It’s not perfect, mind you.  I have to wear a neoprene wrap that’s similar to those little patellar braces you see so many people wearing these days.  It’s not ideal, but with the wrap on I hardly feel that bursitis that dogged me for so long, even when I practice karate.

And, boy, have I been practicing karate.  Which brings me to . . .

. . . two days ago

I earned my black belt!

It probably shouldn’t have taken three years to get there after the injury.  But the bursitis really dogged me as did the recurring shoulder pain, which can still be a problem.  I had to abandon Bo kata and stay away from any of the work with bokken that my school does because of my shoulders.   But I stuck with it.  I figured out what worked and what didn’t with my knee (and my shoulders, too).  I kept training on it until I started not just to trust the knee but to feel very natural on it.  And then I trained very hard over the past four months, during which time the knee was often the least of my troubles as I gained a collection of bumps, bruises, cuts, and scrapes everywhere else on my body.

As the big day approached my main worry was being nervous for the test and forgetting parts of my material (which includes being ready to perform 20 one-steps, 20 self-defense throws with some variations, 20 defenses against knife strikes, at least one of 15 single-person kata, and 2 or more of 6 two-person kata).  The knee was never a concern.  And, thankfully, my brain was merciful and allowed me to focus and even really enjoy the entire exam.

So here’s me, my fellow candidates, and our master instructors on test day.

I’m second from the right, looking tired and suddenly relaxed.

I’ll post some more pictures as they turn up.  

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy a happy ending to this ACL story and get ready for some real learning about karate.


First year, ACL Recovery

Better late than never

Two and a half months late, really.   So this is, in fact, a 14.5 month report.

And yes, yes, I know.  I’ve been neglectful.  I have commited the cardinal sin of blogging:   I haven’t posted for a long, long time.

It’s not that I haven’t been meaning to.  I have.  Really.  Every weekend I think I’ll get up early and write the next installment of this ACL saga.   I have had the desire.  And I’ve had the will, too.  What I didn’t have was something definite to write, good, bad or indifferent.  But I think that has finally changed. Ladies and gentleman, I give you. . .

. . .the (Mostly) Recovered Knee

For the first time in a good long while, I’ve begun to think my knee will make it back to karate.  Oh, it’s been to class a couple of times, sure.  But even a year after surgery it just wasn’t performing that well and wouldn’t extend fully, throwing off my kicks at the start and at the finish. Plus, it would start hurting fairly frequently.   The pain around the harvest area — that tendinits/bursitis — had been dogging me since the surgery.    Until recently.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m 100 percent yet.  Extension still isn’t perfect, and I can feel the knee dancing on the edge tendinitis during certain exercies.  But I have learned a few dos and don’ts that seem to be making a big, big difference:

  1. Avoid leg presses.  At least for now, they seem to really irritate the tendinits.
  2. Avoid certain stretches.  These include splits and others that stretch out the inside of the leg.
  3. Don’t juggle a soccer ball on a hard floor.   While this one seems pretty obivous, juggling on a grassy field seems to be perfectly fine.
  4. Heel slides.  Do your heel slides.  Remember them from just before and after surgery?  Well, now I know the importance of this exercise. It’s quite remarkable, but the more I do these, the better my knee feels.  It’s almost a miracle cure.

‘Sweeping’ changes

Over the past few weeks, I’d been feeling more and more hopeful about the knee.  But last Sunday, I executed a sweep that I could not have done just last month. The sweep is part of our first knife kata. Starting with the left knee up and the right knee down, the right leg sweeps out across the front while the left takes on the kneel.

I’ve avoided doing this move since the surgery.  But there I was on Sunday in the kneel just before the sweep and, well, there it was.  I knew I could do it and I did. After all this long time, it was a wonderful moment.

And now for the shoulder

Now that the knee is getting better, it’s on to the shoulder, which has never recovered from my overly eager attempt at swimming.  I have trouble reaching above my head or extending my arm forward and rotating wrist (which sometimes makes driving a car a pain).  At times it has even bothered my sleep.  Rehab exercises helped only intermittantly, and the doctor started to think there might be some torn cartilage.  An MRI showed only low-grade tendon tears in the rotator cuff, so surgery is not needed (thankfully).  But it does mean months of more physical therapy and lots of specific weight-lifting exercises.  Who knows, but by the end of this I might have a working shoulder and a fair amount of muscle.

Yeah, but what about the karate?

For the time being, I’m easing my way back into karate,  going twice a week with limits on what I can do.  No sparring.  No mat work.  No overhead blocks or strikes.  Basically, I’ve been working on getting my kicks back in shape and doing lots of one-armed kata.

It’s kind of fun and challenging doing the kata this way.  Except for niage/naihanchi kata.  Trying to do those one-armed is just plain weird.   I think this is because they are the first katas to have a good number of asymmetrical strikes where both hands are working together, but not in straight counterbalance.  It’s as if the brain views them as one strike together and so has trouble figuring out which part the good hand should be doing.  It’s absurdly frustrating at times.

In fact, frustration has been my main emotion in regard to karate over the past few months.   But I am indeed returning to my early hopefulness.  With any luck, I’ll be back at karate full scale by the end of the summer.

Cross those fingers.

Knee Report – Doctor Visit

Knee showing the pes anserine bursa

The pes anserine bursa under the hamstring tendons and right below harvest scar.



Pes anserine bursitis, to be specific. At least, that’s what the doctor thinks.

The theory is that scar tissure around the harvest area is irritating the pes anserine bursa and causing my pain.  In many ways, this makes sense. It’s a common enough ailment among healthy knees, and any one of the things associated with the surgery could haved caused it in my case. 

For treatment, the doctor suggested a shot of cortisone.  And  when he administered it, he had trouble getting the needle in and then injecting the cortisone in and around the bursa.   A pretty clear sign of some tough scar tissue.

At the very least, the cortisone will reduce the pain in the short run and likely reduce the internal scarring as well. But there are no guarantees. I don’t think we’ll know for sure for another couple of months. More suspense.

For good measure

I also got another cortisone shot in the shoulder. This was my second since my ill-fated attempt to try swimming as a way to stay in shape. The first shot seemed to do wonders, and I had no troubles with my shoulder until I got the flu a couple of weeks ago.  It got into my joints, which all began to ache, and I guess the area around my rotator cuff got irritated enough to stay angry beyond the illness.  Oh, joy. 

Starting over

My next karate class is just a couple of days before I hit a full 4 weeks off from exercise.  If the knee feels better, I’ll go.  But I’m thinking that this time I really need to slow down and kind of start over.   Go through the basic katas and movements only as a way to recondition my legs.  

At my school, blue belts are often called “black and blue belts” for their penchant for finally hitting targets with good power, but less than stellar control.    They also tend to have knee pain, which I believe is because,  at this point in the training, your body is working to keep up with all the stuff it’s being asked to do.  The knees are bearing the brunt of this, and I think they’re adjusting and even reworking themselves.   

This was echoed by another doctor for a follow-up of a study of ACL injuries I’ve participted in.   He said that my body is likely still “learning” the new knee — the one with new scars and fewer tendonous material.  He seemed to think that it will ultimately make the necessary adjustments, but that it could take awhile.  

I hope he’s right.

1-year Anniversary

Somehow it went fast, this year since I tore my ACL.  And yet, it seems like I should be further along in my return to sport.

True, I’ve been going to karate about once or twice a week.  And I’ve been going through kata on off days and lifting weights/doing balance work as well.  But  I haven’t really and truly gotten back to karate. 

Angry knee

I’ve continuted to have pain near the harvest area and also near that scope hole that swelled up a few weeks after surgery.   So, as I passed 10 months post surgery, I decided I needed to do something.   And nothing.

About two and a half weeks ago, I went to a karate class where we did nothing but what we call “blocking kata” the whole session.    Afterwards I was worn out  But it’d been fun.  My advances in front stance left a lot to be desired, but I had some modicum of flow at times, which left me optimistic.    The worst part was realizing how soft the soles of my feet had become.  

Two days later, though, I did leg weights and squats on the balance board, and afterward my knee was angry.  Very angry.   This is third time since late December that I’ve felt this kind of pain, and I’d had enough of it.


I decided to make an appointment with the doctor and take time off, perhaps a month or so. No karate, no weights, no balance work, no soccer with my son.  

One part of me thinks that I’ve developed a tendonitis around the tendon harvest area and that I just need to rest.  Another part of is worried that it’s a bit more serious, though the graft itself is definitely strong.

I’ve been ‘off’ the knee for two and a half weeks today.   The good news is my knee doesn’t hurt.  But it is tight, and I get the feeling that if I were to start working it out, it might hurt again.  

My appointment with the doctor is this coming Friday.  Crossing fingers that all I need is rest.  But if it is more serious, I’m hoping it’s something that can be fixed.

Month 9, ACL Recovery

My knee has a lot to say

My knee continues to talk to me, especially when I’m exercising. It chatters almost constantly I as go through my moves and get down into in my stances. Sometimes it grunts, and occasionally it just says no. With one exception, it hasn’t really screamed at me, nor has it cursed. But one thing’s for sure, it’s a real complainer, my knee.

It’s also a moody little fellow who frequently contradicts himself. For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been meaning to write an update but haven’t been able to get a coherent message out of him. So I guess that’s the message. Some days I feel better and some days worse.

An example

Just this past Sunday, my knee felt great. I was going upstairs with barely a twinge, kicking a soccer ball with my son outside, and even feeling pretty good going through my kata. My knee wasn’t completely quiet, but it was murmuring more than anything else.

Then I went to the gym on Monday. After I lifted weights I kicked a soccer ball around on the basketball court with my son for about 20 minutes or so. I stretched, iced my knee as we ate lunch a little while later, and took my ibuprophen as usually.

I woke up the next day with a very disgruntled knee. Complaining turned to shouting at times, and I felt pain even just sitting around.

The day after that was markedly better, but it was no where near how it had been before the trip to gym. I went to karate, hoping for the best, but the knee was not happy and told me so. I had to sit down a little early and ice my knee for the last 15 minutes of the class.

The good news

Even with the pain on Tuesday and the discomfort in class on Wednesday, Thursday was much better. I lifted weights again on Friday, and this morning the knee is fairly quiet.

I can’t wait for the day when the knee stays relatively quiet. I haven’t really tested it yet today, but I know that day is not today. Still, this rotten week seems to be ending on a high note, so I’m giving the knee a well deserved day of rest and, hopefully, silence. Tomorrow though, it’s back to karate class for a measured open workout.

Yes, no, maybe

Overall, I feel pretty certain that things are improving. Of course, I want them to improve faster, and I worry that I won’t ever get where I want to be. It’s hard to remember pain precisely, which makes comparing today with a few weeks ago almost impossible. You ask yourself, “Did it feel quite worse the last time I did this move?” The answer is rarely a definitive “Yes!” It’s rarely a “No!” though. It’s almost always, “Maybe.”

And that’s nine months for me, a solid, frustrating, but hopeful “Maybe.”

Little things mean a lot

Earlier this week I had to get up and perform a couple of katas. Neither went especially well, but that I’m doing them at all is still a wonderful thing. Part of it is being out of practice. Another part is not being used to being up in front of people anymore. And, of course, part of it is that my knee still isn’t perfect.

For awhile I’ve noticed that kicks with my left leg (the injured one) feel funny, like they have no “finish” to them. In contrast, my right -leg kicks feel pretty sharp, even though I’m planting and rotating on the injured leg.

I’d figured that, in most cases, the remaining soreness and swelling in the injured leg was keeping me from snapping into full extension and giving me strong, sharp finishes.

But yesterday, as we were practicing kicks with a bag, a lower belt pointed out to me that I was not turning my left foot forward when initiating my kicks with that leg. Because of this, I was bringing my knee up and around a bit instead of straight up, which was throwing me off balance.

And why was I not turning my foot forward properly? Well, because it doesn’t feel great to do it. It doesn’t exactly hurt, but my leg just kind of balks at doing it. I can override the balk, but it takes some thought and slows the kicks down.

In some ways, it’s a small thing. But it has large consequences. And I think I’ll be facing many such niceties as I get deeper into my return.

Scene of the crime

One quick happy note is that I also went through my self defenses with partners for the first time since hurting myself.

Most of them went pretty poorly for a brown belt. Ironically — and most happily — the best of the night was the very technique I injured my knee doing. I’m still going to be nervous about it, I think. But my first visit to the scene of the crime — my first time back on the horse — went well. And I took the opportunity to celebrate and crow about it immediately afterward.