DADE CITY — Two decades after he first started training, Noah Lopez earned a coveted karate black belt last month.
Watching his 6-year-old son take up the martial art is what drew him back.
"When I started back, I wasn't in shape and I had a lot to relearn," said Lopez.
In 1990, he was finishing up at Lacoochee Elementary when he attended a karate tournament in Brooksville to watch his cousin compete. He filled out a card for a drawing offering a free month of karate instruction at Spivey Karate. Soon, he got a call that he'd won.
Lopez committed to his training as he moved through middle and high school. But, at 17, he got a job and karate took a back seat. He quit altogether after earning his brown belt with three stripes — six months shy of his black belt.
Years passed. Lopez married sweetheart Darcie whom he'd met in ninth grade. His daughter Madelyn, now 9, was born, followed three years later by Dylan. Their third child, Cara, is 2, and another son is due in September.
Lopez was busy earning a living trimming trees. When could karate training fit in?
When Dylan turned 4, Lopez decided it was time his son's training started.
"Do you remember me?" Lopez asked his former instructor.
Bill Spivey tried to place the familiar man and then was thrilled that a former student had returned seeking training for his young son.
"It meant a lot to me that Noah returned. I knew when he was 17 and quit that a good one got away and I felt bad," said Spivey. "But teenagers have a lot going on in their lives and sometimes the pressure of training gets too much."
But Spivey had a hunch this time: "I kept an eye on him, sitting in the back while Dylan trained. Noah's a good martial artist and I knew he'd come back."
In about a month, Lopez, now 34, was ready.
This time, he was older and heavier, and training was difficult, especially after long work days. He didn't expect it to be easy, but there were evenings when he could have just settled back at home. Darcie wouldn't allow it.
"She's the pusher," said Lopez, who headed to Spivey's five days a week, for 90-minute workouts.
He weighed 250 pounds when he started. Six months later he'd dropped 30 pounds.
"With Noah's natural martial arts skills, it took only a very short time to rekindle his old abilities," said Spivey. "He's just a little bit slower, but a lot stronger, with about 80 more pounds of size on him."
"Healthwise, I feel much better now. I've always been fast-paced and this is really good for me," said Lopez.
As his training took off, Madelyn enrolled and karate became a family affair.
Sometimes it means shuttling kids to training and back home and then a return trip for Lopez to train.
Meanwhile, they have a punching bag at home.
"What we learn here, we practice at home," Lopez said, adding that his other children will enroll as soon as they turn 4.