Interview by Perry William Kelly
“Some men see things as they are and ask why.
I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”
—Robert F. Kennedy
George Mink is a little bit of Steve Austin (TV’s rebuilt Six Million Dollar Man character), some real-life Rambo and a pinch of Bruce Lee all rolled up into one.
A 7th-degree black belt in shorin-kempo karate, Mink has trained around the world for over 47 years, earned black belts in five different styles of martial arts and competed in full-contact matches.
Currently, Mink and his business partner Penny Pitassi run two schools in Illinois and have a main school in San Antonio, Texas. They also have affiliate schools in California and Colorado. They teach students of all ages, and have specialized classes for women’s self-defense and law enforcement.
In addition to running a school, Mink also spends a great deal of time pursuing his passions outside the dojo: fighting for the freedom of others, and elite endurance sports.
This real-life Rambo (as opposed to a “reel” version) served in the Navy in Vietnam when answering the call for duty was not like today. Back then, many young people felt it was an unjust war. Mink helped rescue thousands of people escaping Vietnam just before the country fell to the Communists. He also helped rescue earthquake victims in Guatemala while battling rebel insurgents.
He summarized his low-key approach to his military service thus:
“You can always tell who the older military guys are,” he says. “They don’t talk about it. I was just a small part of a big picture. Nowadays, it seems like some people [think that] when they go into the military [they] have a publisher with them.”
In addition to his martial arts accolades, Mink’s zeal to excel athletically has seen him become a professional marathon runner and triathlon competitor. For decades, he’s accomplished athletic feats that most people feel are impossible. And, even at an age when most people start slowing down, he made the impossible look easy.
That was until Mr. Murphy and his Law (“The worst thing that can happen, will happen.”) came calling. Mink’s knees were failing fast and the doctors told him that his career as an athlete was ended.
But, like Rocky when he heard Mickey’s voice shout, “Get Up, I didn’t hear no bell!” Mink got up off the (metaphorical) canvas and got back into the fight. His first strike was to start surfing the Internet to find the best prosthetic knees that would allow him to extend his athletic career. And boy, did he ever extend it!
In June 2018, at age 62, three years after both knees were replaced with a pair that set off the metal detectors at the airport, Mink did something else that people said was impossible: He swam over two miles (as the crow flies; it’s more like three when you consider the strong currents and riptides), in 50-degree, shark-infested waters from Alcatraz to the mainland.
He then jumped on his bike for a leisurely 18-mile ride up and down the hills of San Francisco, followed by an eight-mile run — all on bionic knees.
MASuccess felt that this martial artist’s winning mindset about overcoming age and disability was a subject that we should explore for the benefit of our readers. Whether you’re an older martial artist, one faced with physical setbacks, or a school owner with either of these groups as students, Mink’s story will inspire you or help you motivate others.
Here’s what we found out when we sat down with this Bionic Karateka and asked how we could capture his zeal in a bottle, drink it down fully and likewise live out our dreams in athletics, business or life.
MARTIAL ARTS SUCCESS: George, let’s start off by having you tell readers about your martial arts journey!
GEORGE MINK: When I was about eight years old, my father, who was a heavyweight boxer in the military, used to take me out to the garage on Saturday mornings and teach me how to hold up my hands and box. Once I got into my teenage years, my parents moved our family to a farm, where all we did was work and hang out with some friends on the other farms.
We didn’t have many TV channels out there, so all we had to watch were movies on Bruce Lee and [Tom Laughlin’s] Billy Jack. I would try to combine them with my boxing. Once I felt my moves were perfected, I would test them out by scheduling fights. They were always out at someone’s farm, and a crowd of friends would hear about it and show up to watch the spectacle.
maSUCCESS: You also trained in Asia.
MINK: Yes. When I got older, I joined the military. Once I got overseas, I noticed that there were a lot of martial arts schools, especially in Japan and China. I remember taking the trains out of one of the Japanese cities because I heard of a place where monks and martial artist trained.
When I got there, I was told that I couldn’t train there unless I was asked to come in. The first day was pretty long. I got discouraged and finally left. I then decided that if I quit and didn’t go back, I would never learn. So, I went back early the next day and just stood around outside all day.
At the end of the day, as I was started to pick up my pack an old man came out walking real slow and just looked at me and waved for me to follow him.
maSUCCESS: You are also an elite endurance athlete. How did you get into this?
MINK: When I was younger, I used to run all the time [and] competed in a lot of events. As I got older, I started entering long-distance racing. Eventually I trained enough, in between my martial arts training, to start competing in marathons. I had some pretty interesting training days. I would do my martial arts in the evening, and early in the morning I trained my running or sometimes at lunchtime.
My first [triathlon] event was kind of small. It was a thousand-meter swim, an 18-mile bike ride and a six-mile run. You had to tread water for close to a half hour before the race started.
[When the race began,] people started swimming over me. It was a controlled panic. The only thing that kept me focused and feeling like I wouldn't drown was my training. Martial arts taught me that if you don't give up and apply your principles directly you can succeed.
maSUCCESS: You’ve continued to engage in these events even after both of your knees were replaced with prosthetics. Specifically, I understand that you recently completed the Alcatraz triathlon?
MINK: Yes, after years of kicking and running, the Veteran’s Administration [doctors] had to replace both my knees three years ago. About one year ago, I said to myself, “You know, it's time to get moving.”
I was picked from all the world to swim from Alcatraz To San Francisco. I was in a bit of a shock when they picked me, because [although] I had done this already three times, that was 22 years ago.
I immediately laid out a training plan, and all I did was stay focused in on what I was supposed to do. As a martial artist, it was important to start with the end in mind. “What do I want to do?” “What do I want to be?” “What’s it going to take to achieve that goal?”
maSUCCESS: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. You’ve beaten cancer and are a military vet. So, obviously, you’re a brave guy. But, what in the heck were you thinking going for a dip off the Alcatraz dock after seeing that online clip of a great white shark munching a seal right there!?
MINK: Fear has a funny way of controlling people, whether we’re jumping into an ocean full of sharks, (or) going into battle as a martial artist. Most of our fears are an illusion. When we focus in on the bad things that could happen to us instead of focusing in on the goals, we create a story of something that might not even be true.
In every aspect of our life, whether it be martial arts or swimming in the ocean with sharks, there is always the possibility of something going wrong. But we can't focus in on that. The truth is, we have a greater chance of getting in a bad car accident than being chased down by a great white.
I knew that in Alcatraz’s waters there are the great white, sevengill, and tiger sharks and, of course, the small sharks swimming around the bottom scavenging. So, I figured if one does attack me, I guess they're all going to have to fight over [different] parts. But they’re going to have to chase me and fight me first!
maSUCCESS: What aspects of sports/martial arts mental training (e.g., visualization/mental rehearsal) did you use to enhance both your physical training and overcome the fear associated with possibly running into a man-eating shark?
MINK: Every day, once I started training for Alcatraz, I stayed focused in on exactly what I was supposed to do. For each event, I rehearsed the steps in my mind, so it became second nature. While running, I would listen to music that was motivating and picture myself coming down the finish line as the crowds were roaring and people screaming and I'm breaking all the records.
One of the [most] important things that I did in this training was I stayed away from all negativity. I stayed away from the “dream killers.” I stayed away from those people that were busy telling me all the reasons why I couldn't do this. Paying attention to who you surround yourself with is the most important thing in our lives.
maSUCCESS: What protocols do you follow regarding rest, recuperation and rehab strategies?
MINK: It's extremely important to get a lot of rest when you're training. There were days through the week that I intentionally just took off. Even though I didn’t want to, or my brain said, “Keep going, more is better.” I had to take off to allow my body to recuperate.
Advanced technology in training has shown us that training 10 days a week, 20 hours a day does not make us better, faster or stronger. It will hurt us if we’re not careful.
You have to be smart about your training. You’ll do better if you get proper rest and eat properly. Your body will respond way better than if you overwork it and over-train.
Your training is only 5% of your health. The other 95% is all about your nutrition. So, if you're feeling sluggish or if you can't move that fast, the first place you have to look at [is] what you’re eating.
maSUCCESS: Would you recommend martial artists cross-train in endurance sports and vice-versa? And, if so, what are the benefits for both groups?
MINK: I definitely recommend that people cross-train. I've cross-trained my whole life and my endurance cross-training has made my martial arts not only a lot easier, but lowered my injuries.
When you cross-train with more than one sport, it affects your system from a health standpoint. The tools that you have as a martial artist will teach you to stay focused [and] to not quit.
maSUCCESS: What secrets of time management can you share with others, so that they’re able to fit fitness activities into their hectic daily schedules?
MINK: As a school owner or as a person who works a lot and has a family and a busy life, it's hard to fit things in. It’s a controlled panic. It’s extremely important when you're training to have good time management. You have to have training time, work time [and] family time. So, organizing your time for training is extremely important.
For example, say you want to watch your favorite show on TV instead of training. I try to do a combination. If I want to watch something on TV, but I know I had to get in some mileage on the bike, I'll get on my stationary bike and I'll ride it while watching the show.
maSUCCESS: How would you like other school owners to use what you’ve accomplished as a platform to create changes in their communities or make an impact on issues on the national front?
MINK: School owners are in an incredible position to affect the community with the leadership skills and the qualities that they possess. As a school owner, who you are and what you stand for means something and people will listen.
Communities need leaders. I believe martial artists at this day and time need to be a positive force [that] the people and kids in the community can look up to.
Being a school owner or a martial art artist is not just about kicking and punching. If you’re a school owner [who has a] student with a challenge, he/she can look at what I've done and, say, “This guy has prosthetic knees, is older and injured, and it didn’t stop him from what he accomplished.” If they can use [my] story to create something great with others, then it's a great day!
maSUCCESS: After having spent time chatting with you, George, I know that you probably have another sports goal on your agenda. What’s next for you?
MINK: I'm working on putting together a group of relay teams, possibly two years from now, for the Escape from Alcatraz that consists of martial artists and veterans. Also, [I’m] pulling together information for an event in London [that] goes on for 26 miles, I’ve heard. Climbing, crawling through the mud [on] an extreme course. From what I've heard, it's a monster. I can't wait for the next dream.
maSUCCESS: Any last words of advice you’d like to share with our readers, young or old, to help them dream big and attain heights that might seem out of reach at first glance?
MINK: One of the most important things to do, for young and old, is to dream. Without dreams, there's nothing worth looking forward to. If you're older, start thinking like a child.
Have you ever noticed a five-year-old who has a G.I. Joe, just dreaming like they're the biggest superhero in the world? Why can't that be you? If there’s something that you want to do, then do it!
Doesn't matter [how] old or young you are. It doesn't matter what your disability is.
You have the possibility of making a change in your life. We’re only on this earth for so long. Our life is A to B. What you can create between those two points is all up to you.
If you’re sitting at home reading this after a hard training session, congrats on a job well done! But if you skipped martial arts class because you’re letting Father Time kick your butt or you have a little boo-boo that hurts, then don’t walk by a mirror just yet. You might feel a little sheepish looking at the person in the reflection after hearing about the wondrous things George Mink does at his age after swapping his “snap-crackle-and-pop” knees.
Sports psychologists have proven that athletes come back stronger after adversity or serious injury. They call it “adversarial growth” and “post-traumatic growth.” “What does not destroy you, makes you stronger” is a true statement. Just ask baseball pitcher Tommy John (famous for the elbow surgery named after him), who pitched for 14 more years until age 45, after he was told his injured arm meant the end of his career.
Let George Mink’s extraordinary story become a beacon for what you can aspire to, regardless of your age or physical drawbacks. Let Mink be your mentor, your coach, a motivator whose grit makes you do that kata one more time. Or makes you practice that kick until you get it just right or practice that submission escape until nobody in class can make it work on you.
As martial artists, blood, sweat and — yes, even tears — are the currency that we deal in. Avoid the blood and tears as best you can, but go ahead and trade that sweat for greatness. Just like George Mink did.
Canada’s Perry William Kelly is the 2017 World Police and Firefighter Games Karate Gold medalist and a 2018 Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award recipient. A 5th-degree jiu-jitsu black belt, he is also an instructor in four other martial arts. He may be contacted for seminars and interviews at [email protected].
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