NEW TAMPA — The muscle spasms in Christopher Blauvelt's back often keep him awake at night. With fused neck and lumbar vertebrae, nerve damage in his arm, a bad left leg and amputated lower right leg, the 47-year-old former Army sergeant, who survived a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan, said he feels pain all the time.
But enduring the strain of tae kwon do workouts has allowed the New Tampa resident to play a trick on his mind.
"I was putting myself in pain, rather than just being in pain from sitting around or standing around," he said. "So in my mind, every time I was in pain, it was, 'Yeah, it's because I was in class, because I worked out today.' It was good for my brain.''
An unexpected added benefit is worldwide recognition among those practicing the ancient Korean martial art. Blauvelt won the gold medal in the knife-hand style power-breaking competition in a major tournament in Korea a few weeks ago, busting a stack of 14 brick slabs with the edge his hand. He won the Senior III division of the 2013 Hanmadang competition, which one of Blauvelt's teachers called the "Super Bowl'' of power-breaking competitions.
Because of the language barrier, Blauvelt at first didn't realize he had won. He thought he still had to go through the finals, and he kept asking his teacher, Grand Master Jae Hak Lee, who runs the U.S. Tae Kwon Do school in New Tampa.
"He said, 'Finals? You won.'
"I could have hugged him.''
Sgt. Blauvelt's life changed abruptly on April 4, 2010. His unit had traveled to a village during a campaign to befriend Afghans and enlist their help against the Taliban. They were on their way out of town when someone detonated a buried bomb as Blauvelt's truck passed.
He woke up five days later at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He saw bright lights and faces of family members who normally would not be in the same place. "I thought I was in heaven,'' he said.
He feels fortunate that no one died in the attack, and that he had already served his 20 years in the military, so he could retire and take his pension. He started out in the Coast Guard, serving eight years. Then he served five years in the Marines. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he said his wife begged him not to re-enlist with the Marines. Instead, he joined an infantry unit of the Army National Guard in Connecticut. Years later, it was called up for active duty in Afghanistan.
After his recovery, Blauvelt and his family moved to Florida, and he soon enrolled his three children in tae kwon do classes at Lee's school. "It not only develops your body, but it focuses on respect for others,'' he said. "It's almost like a mind- and body-building experience for them.''
Blauvelt had trained in martial arts as a youngster, but he felt his injuries prevented him from enrolling in the class. Lee suggested he concentrate on power-breaking, but Blauvelt balked, describing the extent of his injuries.
"He basically put it to me, 'What do you have to lose?' "
Over about a year of concentrated work, Blauvelt earned his black belt, but because he can't do the jumps, "I don't like to call myself a black belt."
He thinks he looks awkward doing a workout, but "he looks good," said Master Vahid Smith, another instructor, who added that Blauvelt's attitude counts for a lot. "He'll try anything."
Blauvelt thought it would take another year of practice, striking a brick 300 times each workout, to build up calluses and be ready for the Korean competition. But Lee told him he was ready this year. Blauvelt paid $2,500 for the trip, but the school wouldn't have that. Students and friends held bake sales and car washes to raise the money to pay him back.
Breaking that first brick in training also broke the gloom he had felt since his recovery, the regret that he could no longer be as athletic as he once was.
"When I broke it, it was like, 'Whoa, I could do something!' It felt great.''
The kudos increase his enthusiasm.
"Grand Master Lee made me feel real good. He said, 'You don't understand; you're not an able-bodied person, yet you beat able-bodied people in the competition.' ''
Blauvelt is gearing up for next year. He's going to work even harder, he said, supplementing his workouts at the school with exercises at home — even if they result in back spasms.
"This year I don't care. I don't care if I sleep,'' he said with a grin.
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.