Fourteen-year-old Hanna Kolias stands alone, barefoot beneath the bright lights and low ceiling of the Medford Judo Academy. Her white Aikido robe is cinched with a yellow belt, the symbol of her accomplishment.
The White City Middle School eighth-grader is practicing rolls and blocks on a blue, rubber mat. She must master them to graduate to the rank of orange belt. Her curly, dark hair bounces on her shoulders, and her cheeks are flush with exertion and excitement.
Tonight, Hanna is the only student in the class. John Fox, her teacher — "sensei" in the Aikido tradition — calls out to Hanna to bend, to fall, to be more aware of her surroundings, a practice he calls "far-mountain vision."
"Teaching Hanna has taught me a lot about the importance of bending the knees," says Fox.
Complications from a premature birth caused Hanna to develop cerebral palsy. The disease left her with an inability to kneel or even bend her left leg. She swings her leg when she walks, and a string of operations has provided only marginal improvement. Stretching her left arm also has been difficult.
After watching the "Karate Kid" movies, Hanna became obsessed with learning the martial arts, according to her mother, Sandi Kolias.
"I had called many martial arts dojos but was unable to find one that would fit with our situation or that was willing to take on a 'special needs' kid," says Sandi Kolias.
The financial requirements of private lessons were especially difficult to Kolias, a single mother on a tight budget. Through a co-worker, she found Fox, whom she calls an "angel in disguise."
Hanna started taking lessons in November of 2007. She studies with Fox three to four times a week in private lessons, and also joins an adult class from time to time.
When Hanna began her lessons, says her mother, "Her left leg, knee and foot turned in at almost a 90-degree angle. After a few months, she is walking straighter, bending her knees and her foot turns only about 45 degrees now. She stands taller and her balance has improved."
The benefits of this training extend to Hanna's home and school life.
"Her stamina has greatly improved and she is becoming stronger with each class. Aikido has helped build her self-confidence and self-esteem. I have noticed she is more disciplined with homework and chores. Hanna is even more respectful towards me — her mother — than she was a few months ago," says Sandi Kolias.
Aikido has also helped Hanna avoid serious injury.
According to Sandi Kolias, the innocent running and pushing of classmates in school hallways has caused several backward falls for Hanna that ended in trips to emergency rooms with serious concussions.
"I've learned to fall better. You step back, arms out in a line. It helps break your fall," Hanna explains.
Fox encourages his student often, stopping to guide her through moves that prove difficult. He has a track record of working with special needs students. Before moving to the Rogue Valley 15 years ago, Fox taught Aikido in a low-income housing development in Detroit.
Another local student, who is now 19 and is severely autistic, wouldn't speak to anyone when he began studying with Fox. The young man recently earned his black belt.
Fox believes that Aikido is the right choice for special needs students.
"Aikido is not meant to damage or develop someone's ability to damage. Karate is kicking and punching. Aikido is hugging," says Fox.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art that uses an opponent's energy to gain control or push away. Although it uses kicks and blocks derived from Jujitsu, it is a fluid, dynamic form that at times resembles Tai Chi.
Like the autistic boy, Hanna, too, has a dream of earning a black belt.
"I see myself up on stage, giving a speech in my black belt, telling my story — about not giving up," says Hanna.
As she discusses her dream, Hanna pauses, giggles, covers her face with her hands. She glances around to see who is watching her.
In many ways, Hanna Kolias is just like any other 14-year-old girl.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.