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Kicking down stereotypes

Jeff Tully

Jesse Seibel stands out among his classmates at John Muir Middle

School.

Despite being different, the energetic young man has been able to

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capitalize on his skills, and he strives to be just like the rest of

his fellow students.

However, there are only a select few 12-year-olds who can break a

board with their hands, execute a pin-point accurate roundhouse kick

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or perform the intricate moves needed to perfect the ancient martial

art of taekwondo.

Seibel, who trains at Andre’s Martial Arts in Burbank, will get a

chance to put three-and-a-half years of hard work, training and

sacrifice to work today when he obtains his black belt in a

qualifying test at the studio.

That’s what is so special about Seibel.

Although his skills as an accomplished martial artist make Seibel

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unique, he is used to being a little different. Seibel was born with

autism, a developmental disability that affects the functioning of

the brain.

Vincent Rodricks, who owns Andrew’s Martial Arts, and who is a

grandmaster and eighth-degree black belt, said in spite of his

disability, Seibel has been able to thrive in taekwondo.

“Most of the kids in the class, especially when their young, if

they’re not interested, they’re never going to get better,” Rodricks

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said. “You have to have an interest. Jesse has shown an amazing

amount of interest and he wants to progress and get better.”

One of the common characteristics of autism is a propensity for

memory and an uncanny ability to deal with numbers. Rodricks said

Seibel’s ability to memorize lessons and the fundamentals of

taekwondo has been invaluable in the student’s success in the sport.

“There is something about Jesse that is amazing,” Rodricks said.

“You have to teach him something twice. But once he gets it, you can

ask him a year from then what he was taught and he can remember it

perfectly. He has a very good memory.

“I never have to worry about Jesse remembering what I have taught

him. When there is a belt test coming up, I have to ask the other

kids ‘Do you remember what you have to do?’ Most of them forget a

little of what they’ve learned. But not Jesse. He never forgets and

he is always ready.”

Jesse’s mother, Cheryl, said she is constantly impressed by her

son’s acute memory.

“He can tell me what day of the week it was when he first went to

Disneyland. I can’t even remember that but he knows it,” Cheryl

Seibel said.

Jesse said he used a mathematical equation in figuring out how far

he had to go to attain his black belt.

“When I got my blue belt, it made me think of a fraction. Do you

know what that fraction is? One over two. Because master Vincent said

when you’re a blue belt, you’re halfway through getting your black

belt. That’s how I thought of it.”

*

Seibel first became involved in taekwondo at the urging of

Vincent, a family friend. Vincent thought the exercise would be good

for the young man, and he could also benefit from the discipline and

attention to detail the sport requires.

Since his induction into the class, Seibel has been able to

progress through the belt stages of the martial art, with the

eventual goal of reaching the pinnacle of black belt.

Along with his student’s remarkable ability to learn, Vincent said

Seibel keeps up with the other athletes his age and needs no extra

time to perfect his lessons.

“He can now do things that I never thought he was going to be able

to do,” Vincent said. “I thought I would be able to bring him to a

certain stage and we wouldn’t be able to go any farther. But he has

gone past all my expectations.

“When he gets that black belt, it is something that will make me

proud. It is an achievement he deserves and he has worked so hard to

achieve.

“Along with being very good in martial arts, Jesse is one of the

nicest kids you will ever meet, he really is. He is well-mannered,

very polite and he cares about people.”

Getting ready for his black-belt testing, Seibel isn’t worried

about whether is going to pass the test. With more than three years

of study under his belt, he said he is ready.

“I have a big file about it in my brain. I just have to remember

it all,” he said.”

Seibel doesn’t suffer from a sever form of autism and isn’t

plagued with some of the motor problems and difficulties that someone

with a severe form of the disorder has to endure.

Although his speech is slightly slurred, Seibel has no trouble

communicating or getting his point across. As a mater of fact, his

mom said Jesse can be quite the exaggerator.

That is evident when he talks about how much work it has been for

him to work his way up to a black belt.

“I can think of about 400 things that have been tough for me,” he

said. “I have been here for three-and-a-half years and there have

been a lot of tough things.”

But with all the tough times, Seibel has also had a lot of fun

learning taekwondo. One of his favorite things to do during class

involves a certain drill.

“There is a kicking bag, and sometimes I ask the instructor to

take it out. And when he does, I just keep kicking it,” he said. “A

lot of times, what I like to do is do a side-kick on the bag, and I

always knock it down. Well, almost always.”

*

When it was first suggested to his mother that it might be a good

idea for Jesse to take up martial arts, Cheryl was not keen on the

idea.

Like any protective mother -- especially one with a special-needs

child -- Cheryl wanted to protect Jesse from any harm he might

encounter in the class.

“I was really hesitant at first, because I thought that no

instructor is going to have the patience for Jesse,” she said. “I

thought he would feel excluded, or I wondered if it was going to be a

good thing for his self-esteem.”

However, Cheryl changed her mind and allowed Jesse to join the

class. She said it is one of the best things she has ever done for

her son.

“It has been just the opposite of what I thought it was going to

be for Jesse,” she said.

“It’s been an amazing thing for him. His self-esteem has gone up,

he is more confident and his strength has improved a lot. He is also

significantly more flexible and a lot more coordinated.”

During the first few months under Vincent’s instruction, Cheryl

came to every class, in order to keep an watchful eye on her son.

However, there was a point when she figured it would be better if she

wasn’t present at the sessions.

“At first I watched, but it was hard because Jesse wouldn’t pay

attention and he wasn’t focused with me there,” she said. “But I had

to stop coming because it was too distracting having me there.

“But I really get amazed when I come to his belt tests, and that’s

when I really get a chance to watch him and what he can do. Some of

the things he can do are amazing.”

The amazing journey of earning a black belt in taekwondo is an

monumental accomplishment for Seibel. And that is what is most

special about him.


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