On the mats of Ingram's Karate Center, five elite athletes train vigorously for the opportunity to call themselves champions of the world.
Whether it's in New Port Richey at the original facility or at a new satellite location in Carrollwood, these karate standouts have sparred and practiced their way onto the U.S. national team that will compete at the AAU Karate World Championships in Italy from Oct. 19 to 25. They are River Ridge High School senior Yvar Bajala, 17; New Port Richey's Austin Stone, 15; 10-year-old Ryan Williams from Holiday; and brother-sister duo Chris, 15, and Marisa Ruland, 13, of Palm Harbor.
Only 50 karate students from around the United States are chosen to fight for the national team. To have 10 percent of that group come from a single dojo is something that delights instructor Mark Ingram.
"We had 40 on our team that went to nationals, and these are the ones that made it onto the Italy team, so I have them training together," Ingram said. "We've taken some kids every year since 1999, but I am so excited about this one because this is the best group I've ever had, by far. They get better and better because they're all good athletes, and they work really hard. Also, as coaches, we're getting to know the game a bit better, so I think this group could do really well."
The group mentality is ever present as the kids help each other with everything from kata forms to constructed sparring.
"We all compete in different age groups, so we never have to face each other," said Bajala. "We train together too, so every day of practice is at a very high level because each of us in the group is very good for their age."
This marks the fourth trip for Ingram as part of the national team coaching staff. He said he now understands that one of his most difficult jobs is to make sure the kids are strong enough both physically and mentally on the day of the competition.
"The kids from Europe aren't as pampered as American kids, so they grow up fast, and they grow up tough," Ingram said.
"They come from all over, but the Europeans are some of the tougher competition, and it becomes essential that we train hard and stay in great shape. The mental side of it is just reminding them that the other kid doesn't know them either. I tell them, 'He's just as scared as you, so go in there and do what you do. You're here to represent the United States, so be confident.' "
The sport of karate has already changed each of the student's lives, and while success is a goal in Italy, each recognizes that competing on the biggest stage possible for them at this age is already an achievement.
"It's an experience that not a lot of people get to have," said Austin Stone. "You take things in that you don't normally get to see. It's going to be a good eye-opener because Italy is a lot different than America, and we'll actually see how it really is over there."
David Rice can be reached at email@example.com.