Karate American: a workout [AND] a way of life


Master Smith celebrates the success of his student with a crisp high five ©Emily Glen 2018.

By Emily Glen

Halfway through class the sweat is already seeping into the ground, weapons garnish the walls, students are yelling, heart rates are skyrocketing, chests are heaving from exhausted lungs, and fists are flying, yet the teacher isn’t fazed at all. This is a normal day in class for headmaster Luke Smith, but this is not a normal school.

Smith, 37, is the owner, headmaster, and lead instructor of Karate American, a martial arts school established in 1981 in Eau Claire, WI. With almost three decades of experience, a 6th degree black belt in American freestyle karate, and various belts in other styles of martial arts, Smith has come a long way in his journey.

Luke Smith, 37, owner of Karate American ©Emily Glen 2018.

Ever since he was four years old, Smith begged his parents to give him the opportunity to learn karate. But being an ADHD, hyperactive-to-the-nth-degree child who wanted to be a ninja, his parents were skeptical at first and didn’t want to regret exposing him to violence at a young age.

They learned more about it they saw how it wasn’t about violence, it was a way of peace, a way of life. At eight years old with the new support of his parents Smith finally stepped foot in the dojo.

“It was funny after that first class I looked at my dad on the way home and I was like ‘Dad, I will do this for the rest of my life,’” Smith said, as if he could look directly into the future.

So far, the prophecy holds to be true. At age 13 Smith started part-time teaching karate classes for the younger students at Karate American, in 1995 he earned his 1st degree black belt, and by age 25 Smith became the new official headmaster and owner of the entire school.  

“Master Smith teaches respect, discipline, and acceptance,” says Kim Olson, mother of two of Smith’s students, “He is an open, honest, and hardworking father, friend and instructor.”

Karate wasn’t always his life plan, after graduating from Altoona High School in 2000, Smith enrolled at the University of Wisconsin – Stout as a major in human development family studies to become a guidance counselor, while still teaching karate part time on the side at Karate American.

The plan metamorphosed during his junior year in college when he started teaching full time at Karate American, with the promise that he would be able to take ownership of the school when he was ready. So Smith decided to leave the university life behind and pursue his true passion.

In 2004, Smith was involved in a car accident that severed off his left leg below the knee. The possibility of never doing karate was feeling more realistic every second, even the doctor said he would never walk again, much less be able to do karate even after physical therapy. If it weren’t for the confidence of martial arts and the support of friends and family, Smith admits that probably would’ve been the reality. He battled through recovery in a wheelchair, in crutches, with a cane, even an air cast that still left him with permanent tendon damage on the leg. Where most people would have given up, Smith kept pushing, and he largely thanks karate for this. He says it’s like Popeye’s spinach in a way, a super power, a super thing that influences every aspect of his life.

“I remember [the doctor] looking at me saying, ‘I have to tell you, you won’t walk. You won’t do karate again.’ I looked at him, I said, ‘Watch me.’”

Karate isn’t only a career for Smith, it can mean different things to different people, but to him it’s life. In addition to the physical exercise that comes from training, karate instills strong values of courage, respect, discipline, confidence, control, and perseverance. This gives it real applicability to situations in real life besides fighting: having a conversation, quickly assessing a situation, decision making, keeping calm and in control, even raising children.

“If your kids do something you don’t blow up at them,” says Smith, father of three, “or you don’t raise a hand to them because kids don’t need to learn that way. So, I think karate is a way of life, a way of living it. It’s in everything.”

Students at Karate American think of it as a second home, a safe, supportive, and fun community to be a part of. Instead of getting into trouble or being on the streets, they’re encouraged to come to Karate American even if it’s not time to train.

Smith hopes to influence his students to have confidence and self-worth, to be respectful leaders, and to be prepared to handle any situation life may throw their way. He wants to pass on the knowledge martial arts has given him to his students, so that some day they can pass on that knowledge too.  

“If karate has taught me anything,” Smith says, “it’s to follow my heart. And this is following my heart.”