WESLEY CHAPEL — When Evan Thompson stepped onto the mat at the USA Open karate tournament, it was a surprise to everyone in the field.
The 11-year-old student from the Keiko Shin Karate Academy in Wesley Chapel flew out to Las Vegas for a weekend in April, when three of the world's most high profile karate tournaments were all under way. Thompson was registered in only one of them.
After an encouraging performance in the strict and traditional Ozawa Cup, Thompson's parents decided to register their son in the USA Open, a tournament that featured participants from 52 countries.
"After I didn't get anything in the Ozawa Cup, I was able to sign up for the USA Open, thankfully, because they take registrations right up until the event starts," Thompson said. "Everyone at the tournament was really good. It makes you realize how tough it is to win when you go to a competition like that. To be honest, I was really surprised I made it that far."
Having never been on a competitive stage of that magnitude, Thompson's performance was remarkable. Beating kids from Mexico and South America, Thompson reached the final where he faced an opponent from Venezuela. Thompson suffered a disappointing loss in that match, but delighted his coaches with how far he progressed.
"He knew that he wasn't supposed to be in that tournament but his parents stepped up and got him into it at the last second," Sensei Ernesto Fuentes said. "Of all the kids, Evan was the surprise. He had to step up in a tournament he didn't expect to be in and he made it all the way to the final. He has that ability to recognize the situation and rise to the occasion."
For Thompson and the eight teammates who competed in Las Vegas, the tournament was both a confidence booster and educational experience. The nine students from Keiko Shin returned with 22 medals.
"I feel confident that I can go up against anyone," 9-year-old Banton Gayle said. "The people from Australia and Russia were really good. But knowing that I can step in the ring and stand toe-to-toe with them makes me feel good."
For assistant coach William Serrano, it was an eye opener to see just how far reaching karate's influence is.
"It was amazing to me how far people came to be in this tournament," Serrano said. "I really enjoyed the interaction between countries. People were there from Uzbekistan, Serbia, all sorts of places. I ran into people from the town in Puerto Rico where I was born, it's really big. It amazes you how many people love karate."
For Fuentes, the satisfaction of his team's performance at such a prestigious event is priceless. Fuentes began his journey in 1997 when he obtained his instructor's license, and has built a brand that has developed into a reputable dojo. He hopes that the success in Las Vegas will translate into more medals in July, when the team travels to Arlington, Texas, in an attempt to make the American team that will compete in the Pan American Games in November.
"I'm lucky that we have great parents surrounding these kids that are willing to spend money on their kids traveling to all these tournaments and being supportive," Fuentes said. "People see our kids at the tournaments and they ask where we come from. Everyone else comes from Miami, New York, California, et cetera. We say Wesley Chapel and unanimously they all say, 'Where is that?' We've built a name for ourselves because word of mouth has gotten around that our kids train hard and put in the work to win."