Sports with a Larger Purpose - Martial Arts Experts Help the Blind
By Bill Johnson / August, 2011
A world champion martial arts fighter is jumping rope for what seems like a very long time. In a nearby cage, two kick-boxers wearing heavy pads are practicing sweeping kicks to their opponent's legs and head. On a couple of large padded mats, martial arts students are taking turns throwing each other to the mat. This is just another day at the American Top Team Martial Arts Academy, a world-class martial arts training center, in Coconut Creek.
You might envision a place where boxers and wrestlers train as a dank and seedy spot in an old warehouse in a rundown neighborhood, as depicted in such movies as The Fighter and Rocky.
If so, you'd be surprised by a visit to the American Top Team Academy. Your first impression is how big, bright, and clean it is - a 20,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art training facility.
Most important, though, is the quality of the fighters here, and the quality of the training staff. Roughly sixty professional martial arts fighters train here. They came from all over the world, including Brazil, Germany, Bolivia, Korea, and Canada. American Top Team trains, coaches and manages such professionals.
Mike Brown, who has held the world extreme cagefighting championship, moved to the area specifically to train at American Top Team Academy. The coaching staff includes former Olympic stars, such as Howard Davis, who won an Olympic gold medal in boxing in 1976.
Ricardo Liborio, a Brazilian jiu jitsu champion, founded the academy with a business partner in 2001. Since then, fifty-six American Top Team training centers have opened around the country. There are even some overseas.
In Coconut Creek, there are approximately 750 members, most of whom buy one-year memberships and train in boxing, kick-boxing, jiu jitsu, wrestling or grappling. More than 200 members are children.
To Liborio, it's just as important to teach children the values inherent in the martial arts community as it is the physical skills. Big signs proclaim the principles of black belt, including self-control, discipline, modesty, courtesy and integrity.
One group of students may catch your eye, not because of their skill, but because you realize they cannot see. Liborio has deep empathy for blind persons and provides martial arts training for any of them without charge. He established this practice after his four-year-old daughter lost her sight.
A group of blind children were exposed to martial arts on six consecutive Wednesdays this past June and July. They were enrolled in a summer camp program of the Lighthouse of Broward, a non-profit organization that provides various services and training to blind persons.
Among the children from the Lighthouse was six-year-old John Paul Desilva. He was excited as he waited his turn to practice an easily executed "take down," pushing an instructor to the mat.
One of the blind members of the academy is a 21-year-old man with an impressive story. Felipe Rodriquez, of Oakland Park, began training at the academy late last year. Only seven months later, in May, he won a state grappling championship by defeating an opponent who can see. Grappling is a form of wrestling done on the mat, so you are in contact with your opponent. Rodriquez benefited from his childhood training in judo before losing his sight in 2004.
Liborio is striving to become a training center for blind persons to compete in the para-Olympics. "My goal is to create a friendly environment for blind people and their families," he says.
This year Liborio has been - or will go - to the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Bangkok to train Olympic athletes. Here at home, his highest goal is to get more blind people out of their homes and into his academy. "It's my mission," he says.
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