There are times when an unanticipated blow lands hard. The light shifts, the world tilts and with your pulse roaring in your ears, you react.
Walker Tharpe knows what getting hit feels like. He knows how to take a punch as well as block them, how to anticipate wheel kicks, jabs and strikes, how to take and how to deliver. He knows that there are appropriate responses to what both opponents and life throw at you.
Tharpe, who lives in Dearing, may be just 17 years old, but he has learned that success on the mats and on the street is not determined by the power or complexity of who or whatever it is that is poised to rain down the next attack.
“The main thing is to focus on yourself,” he said recently after teaching his karate students at the Y in Thomson. “So many people are worried about beating other people. They’re worried about being better than somebody. I believe if you really only worry about yourself, if you try to be better than you were yesterday, then you’ll be fine.”
Tharpe learned that lesson not just at his teacher’s feet, but from the footprints that teacher left behind. When he was just 14, he took over the Kajukenfu Budo Kai Kenpo Karate school after his master, Shihan John Pareda, died suddenly of a heart attack.
Tharpe was already a black belt who had been training with Pareda since he was 9 years old.
“We became really close, like brothers,” he said of his teacher. “I couldn’t tell you how many miles we put on I-20. We went to other schools and watched them. We set up networks and built relationships.”
When Pareda decided to open a karate school at the Wrens Family Y, he asked an 11-year-old Tharpe to help him teach classes there. They were spending five afternoons or more together every week.
“I could ask him any question about martial arts and he always had an answer for me. If I could just have half the knowledge he had, I would be all right,” Tharpe said.
Together they built and trained a team of martial artists who have competed across the southeast. Then, three years ago, Pareda, died suddenly.
“The night before we had practice and afterwards we were talking and he told me that one day he would retire and the school would be mine if I wanted it,” Tharpe said. “I told him yes, I would do that. The next morning my dad woke me up and told me the news.”
His father, Russell Tharpe, and some of the other parents of Pareda’s students, said they had always assumed that one day Walker would take over the school. But none of them were prepared for the suddenness of it.
“There is a historical tradition of teachers passing their schools on to a student,” Russell Tharpe said. “In this case, I guess fate stepped in. Walker accepted that role at 14. My hat’s off to him.”
“I didn’t want the school to stop,” Walker said. “This is a great thing and it has impacted my life hugely. It has made me a better person. And I want the other students to have the same opportunities that I had.”
While he had been an assistant instructor for a few years, taking over the school was another thing entirely.
“I was used to him telling me what to do and now I have to think for myself,” Walker said. “I was constantly thinking, ‘What do the students need to work on today? What are their weaknesses?’ I had to break up my time to spend 10 minutes on this and divide it up so everyone could get what they needed.”
Jayden Carroll of Wrens, another of Pareda’s students who had achieved a blackbelt, has since returned to assist Tharpe.
“He (Pareda) was like my dad,” she said. “After he died I took a break because I didn’t think it would be the same to me. I didn’t know Walker was going to continue doing this. I had been missing it, then, I heard that Walker was running the school and needed some help. They are both really good instructors.”
When Carroll came back it was as much to help Walker as it was for herself.
Walker explained that as students learn martial arts it is all about what they get from the system: not just the skills themselves, but also the confidence, the discipline.
“But once you become a black belt,” he said, “after that you are promoted by what you put back into the system. When I got my blackbelt John told me you go out and you learn a new discipline and you bring it back for your students and that would be the requirements for your second degree.”
Walker took up Judo, which involves throws and grappling, arm bars and chokes and no strikes. He earned a green belt and has since brought those techniques back to his students.
“We practice the martial arts to serve. We are servants. That’s why all of our forms start off with a block, because we never attack first,” he said.
While Walker has continued to work on his skills, and even traveled to Korea to train with that country’s Olympic Judo team, his primary focus has been on his students. He feels that his intensive focus on the basics while working with his students has helped strengthen his core and better prepare him for the advanced skills he has since been studying.
In August, Walker was inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame in Houston by Professor Angelito Barongan.
“It was based on what you’ve done in your career,” Walker said. “A big part of it is your tournament wins, region, state and national wins. I’ve won those, but it is really more about what you’ve put back into your system. So what I got inducted for was Leading Black Belt of the Year. They said it was because I put my school first, because I cared more about advancing them rather than myself.”
The day after the induction he and several of his students competed in the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame Classic tournament.
Walker took first place in forms, weapons and fighting. Carroll, a 15-year-old Jefferson County High School student, took second in forms and weapon. Zion Moss, a 9-year-old blue belt from Gibson, took first in weapon and second in forms. Their finishes earned them invitations to compete in a World Cup tournament in Jamaica beginning Thursday and ending Feb. 28.
Russell Tharpe said that this will be the biggest stage any of them have competed on.
Walker said that their work ethic has definitely set them apart and feels they have “out worked” their opponents. His father said that he has been humbled by the responsibility and maturity his son continues to show.
“He’s taking what was given to him and passing it on,” Russell said. “He’s molding young men and women. What other teenager do you know that will give up several days a week, including Friday evenings to work with 7- to 9-year-old kids?”