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My Student, Joe Hammel

By Dave Kovar


Every now and then, you meet someone who immediately grabs your attention. Joe Hammel was one of those people. I’ll never forget the day in the early 1990s when he walked into my school. He was 53 at the time, and I remember thinking how old he was. He told me that he had wanted to do martial arts since he was a teenager but never had the courage to get started.

I told him that it was never too late to start! Now was just as good a time as any! I didn’t really believe it, but I didn’t tell him that part.

Joe was no dummy. He was an English professor by day and a concert pianist by night. Smart he certainly was, but coordinated he certainly was not. During his first lesson, I remember thinking that he was the most ungraceful person I’d ever worked with. I asked him about prior athletic endeavors. He said he’d never done anything remotely like a sport in his whole life. It showed.

At first glance, the lack of previous physical training seemed like a big disadvantage. But Joe quickly proved that there was at least one perk: He had no past injuries to contend with, despite being in his 50s. What Joe lacked in coordination, he made up for in hard work. After a few months of consistent training, his body became noticeably stronger and more supple. I began to see the start of a martial arts athlete.

Over time, his coordination improved to the point where he actually looked the part of an average middle-aged student. But Joe wasn’t happy being average. I learned that when he did something, he went all-in. And he was certainly all into his martial arts training.

Four years and three months after his first visit to our school, Joe earned his black belt. He continued to train with us through third degree. Despite my first impression of him, Joe ended up becoming an excellent black belt. He could out-spar, out-kata and out-push-up classmates 30 years his junior! As a matter of fact, watching him practice, you would never guess that he had ever been uncoordinated.

Joe was also an amazing ambassador for the school. Every martial arts school should have a Dojo Dad, and ours was Joe. He helped out in class on a regular basis and never missed an event. He was loved by all. He worked his way into the very fabric of our organization.

When he retired and moved away at 70, we all knew how much we’d miss him. After his last training session, he pulled me aside and told me how much he had learned from our school and how valuable martial arts training was for him in his life. I thanked him, but the truth is that I learned way more about hard work, patience and perseverance from Joe than he ever learned from me.

Joe passed away a few years back, but I’m proud to say that his grandson just earned his junior black belt with us. It is an honor to see Joe’s martial arts legacy continue to expand even after he’s gone.

The clear lesson this story shows is that you should never pass judgment on someone’s potential. Looking back, if I had told Joe what I was thinking when he began, I might have discouraged him from pursuing martial arts training. If that had happened, not only would he have missed out on a great experience but also I would’ve missed out on a great lesson and the members of our dojo would have missed out on a great person.

Thank you, Joe. Your hard work, dedication and perseverance will be forever remembered.



You can contact Master Dave Kovar at [email protected]

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