8-Year-Old Karate Kid : 60-Pound Woodland Hills 3rd-Grader Beats Older and Bigger Rivals to Win a Black Belt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight-year-old Natasha Rosberg of Woodland Hills loves "The Flintstones," math class and her new kitten, Tiger. Like many girls her age, she's missing one front tooth.

Unlike them, she can chop through boards with her bare hands and hold her own in combat with boys two grades ahead of her in school.

The shy, 60-pound girl astonished her parents and instructors last weekend by becoming the youngest girl to achieve a first-degree black belt in the 16-year history of the Tarzana Karate Studio.

That means that from now on, when the whispery-voiced third-grader, known as "Tasha" to classmates at Woodlake Elementary School, enters the studio, she will be addressed as "Miss Rosberg." Other children and adults alike will be required to bow in a sign of respect for the black belt circling her tiny waist.

She received the belt in a ceremony Monday night at the studio on Ventura Boulevard, which specializes in the American Tang Soo Do school of karate.

First she gave the traditional formal bow to her instructor of three years, Dennis Ichikawa. Then--little girls can be impulsive, even those with black belts--she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him.

"Her cheeks tonight are going to be sore from smiling," Ichikawa said.

The simple fabric sash did not come easily. While other kids spent last Saturday skateboarding or watching "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" on TV, she underwent a grueling, seven-hour examination before a panel of 20 black belt judges. Her essay, "What Tang Soo Do Means to Me," was scrutinized, and the panel watched her perform several intricate, dancelike "forms."

She kicked, she punched, she broke boards and she jump-kicked. She fought a 10-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl--simultaneously.

The last, she said, was the most difficult, because Ichikawa had told the demure little girl she would not receive her black belt until she could spar without crying. When the boy first struck her, tears welled, but she braced herself, growled, and jumped back at him with what her teacher called "fighting spirit."

"I said, she's not a little girl, she's a tiger," Ichikawa recalled in a speech before he ceremoniously wrapped the black belt around Tasha.

It was the culmination of nearly three years of classes, sometimes five a week or more, and hundreds of hours of practice on the rug in her dining room. In her bedroom, on the flowered bedspread, lay her earlier belts, reflecting her rising through the ranks of prowess: White, yellow, purple, orange, blue, green, red.

Although there is no consistent standard for what constitutes a black belt, and no record of how many 8-year-olds may hold them, Natasha is indisputably a prodigy in the art form, Ichikawa said.

"I would venture to guess that in the country, there are not many 8-year-old girls even close to getting their black belts," said Ichikawa. "It is an age when most little girls are playing with dolls or playing house."

Natasha's room has plenty of dolls, too. But ever since she watched the movie "Karate Kid" 30 times as a kindergartner, karate has dominated her life, said her mother, Anita, a real estate agent.

"When she was 5, and she said, 'Daddy, I want to take karate,' we thought, 'Sure, this will last two weeks,' " said Mike Rosberg, Natasha's father.

Through mistakes and pain, Natasha persisted.

Her form, in executing basic techniques, was "perfect. Very, very creative," Ichikawa said. "She moves like a dancer."

Sparring was tougher.

"It was out of character for her, which made her success all the more impressive," Ichikawa said.

"When I felt like crying, I learned to suck it up," she said somberly. "I would just think, 'They're trying to take away my black belt.' "

But no one could. When the 10-year-old boy got in a good blow in Natasha's examination match against two opponents, tears stung her eyes, but she held them back and attacked.

The boy was the one who wound up on the mat, crying, Ichikawa said.

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