Even after two decades as a martial artist who has made a name for herself both locally and nationally, 28-year-old karate instructor Shantell Dawson exudes girl-next-door charm, belying the fact that she could conquer an attacker twice her size.
Pass through the doors of Chip Wright's Champion Karate in Medford, however, and the school's head instructor is well-known for her abilities.
Dawson, a fifth-degree black belt, recently received a Norris Cup at the annual World Championships for the United Fighting Arts Federation in Las Vegas, an organization devoted to the Chun Kuk Do style of karate developed by actor Chuck Norris.
When she began training during a karate summer camp at age 7, Dawson saw karate as a fun thing to try — and perhaps she could meet Norris, for whom the school's owner, Chip Wright, has worked for years as a stunt double.
"Like a lot of our kids who have been coming here to train for years, I signed up for a six-week special and, as they say, the rest is history," Dawson says.
While she experienced the typical lulls when she had to push herself to continue martial arts, Dawson's dedication grew as she began to compete and teach.
In 2000, Dawson won the most points of any junior martial artist in the Pacific Northwest Conference, earning a spot in the National Black Belt League Hall of Fame. As a teenager, she was named Chun Kuk Do Junior Competitor of the Year in 2002 and 2003. Her Norris Cup in July was her seventh over the past decade.
Twenty years after she first donned a karate gee, Dawson remembers in vivid detail each step from white belt to black and says she enjoys watching her students make their own journey.
"When they first come in, no matter how old they are, they're all on the same level. It's really fun to watch them all accomplish their goals," she says.
"It's funny because I've been doing this for so long, but I can still remember my instructors telling me that they had been teaching for longer than I had been alive. It's weird to catch myself doing that with my own students now. Makes me feel old!"
On the contrary, Dawson is young to have accomplished as much as she has, Wright says.
"Shantell is just a great martial artist who trains really hard, and you can't say enough about her," Wright says.
"You can tell when a student first comes in that some of them have natural athletic ability — and she had that — but what really makes a difference in the long run is that they have that stick-to-itiveness and that solid work ethic. That's what really makes a champion."
Fourth-degree black belt Brenda Kizzire says Dawson is a good example for children and adults at the school.
"I'm 20 years her elder, but I see her as my instructor and mentor when it comes to karate," Kizzire says. "It's been interesting watching her go from a girl to a young woman to an adult. She's so passionate about teaching these kids karate."
Excited to see what her future in martial arts holds, Dawson says it often surprises her to realize how long she's been a martial artist.
"I'll get a sandwich somewhere and someone will say, 'Where you headed off to?' I'll say 'work,' and they'll ask where I work, and I'll say, 'Chip Wright's.' They usually say something like, 'Oh, do you, like, answer the phones or something?' " Dawson says with a laugh.
"I'll tell them that I teach, and the next question out of their mouth is, 'What are you, a black belt or something?' And they always kind of chuckle when they ask. When I say I'm a fifth-degree black belt, they usually just stand there and stare for a minute."
Kizzire says Dawson's down-to-earth approach makes others open to her advice.
"She's just a very humble person, and you can be very real in front of her," Kizzire says.
"She's not someone who has to tell everyone what she can do or what she's accomplished. She's just extremely compassionate, and she's focused on helping everyone be the best they can be and push past uncomfortable limits. She isn't weak, and she doesn't want anyone else to be weak, either.
"When we're pushed past our own limitations," she adds, "that's when we become humble, like Shantell, and when we become better."
Dawson recently started a "Kick Fit" fitness class for men and women.
For details, call Dawson at 541-772-1576.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at email@example.com.