KELLER — A small taekwondo school in Keller is producing big results.Students of all ages and abilities at Keller ATA Martial Arts Academy are overcoming challenges, stepping out of comfort zones and taking home medals, some even earning world champion titles.Mary Nero, owner of the studio at 102 Navajo Drive, said it is rewarding to see her students surpass their goals.“We’ve had some very exciting things happen to some of our students lately,” she said.About 100 students take classes at the studio and Nero said all have a special place in her heart. But four of them -- Dan Richter, Michelle Sanford, Dan DuBois and Gabby Nero -- have faced extra challenges, making them stronger, both physically and emotionally, and making their wins more meaningful. Dan Richter, a 17-year-old with Down Syndrome, didn’t let his nerves or disabilities stop him from becoming a world champion.He had to give up bicycling this year due to back pain but through martial arts was able to persevere, stay competitive and go after his goals.“When we started, I wanted him to do something to get some exercise,” said Dan’s mother, Jenny Ritcher. “I didn’t even push him through the belt ranks.”Dan now is a black belt with a world champion title.“He has memorized 80 moves in sequence for his black belt form,” Jenny Ritcher said.Nero said when Dan Richter started at the school five years ago, she never thought he would earn a black belt, let along win a world championship.To be able to compete for such a title, students must earn points at various tournaments held throughout the year placing first, second and third each.Dan competes with all degrees of black belts ages 13 to 17 years old, all with a cognitive disability such as Down syndrome or autism.“Last year I thought Dan would do so well, but his nerves got the best of him and he was unable to compete,” Nero said. “This year he was ready to go and wouldn't allow himself to be denied.”This summer, Dan won World Champion in both Creative Forms and Creative Weapons at the American Taekwondo Association’s World Championship Tournament in Little Rock, Ark.Michelle Sanford is a full-time working mom who overcame a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) to win a district title. Sanford never dreamed she would even qualify for such a title. She started taekwondo as a way to stay involved with her sons' training, never considering she would grow to love it so much.She said after her two boys started training, Nero kept reminding her that the third family member, and any others afterward, are free of charge.When her oldest son was nearing the time to earn his black belt, he asked his mom to try a class.“I thought it would be a good workout, so I started taking classes,” she said.Sanford and both of her boys now have earned their black belt.When Sanford began competing at tournaments, she struggled with her nerves and often froze in the middle of her form.“She asked the spectators from our school many times not to watch her or cheer for her because it only made her more nervous,” Nero said.Nero said last summer, Sanford competed at one of the school’s biggest tournaments in Arkansas and with 15 other women in her ring, she froze half way through but went on to finish.At that point, she set a goal to never freeze again.Tearing her ACL made acheiving her goal more painful and difficult. She had surgery in January but went on to place in the top 10 in Texas and earn a spot to compete in the District Championship.“This time, she didn't freeze, nor did she buckle under the pressure,” Nero said.Recently, Sanford’s husband started classes and now the whole family is excited to set new goals together.Dan DuBois started the sport in 1994, earning a red belt but had to quit when life got in the way. After eight years, which included some moves during his career in the Navy and many life changes such as raising his daughter after a divorce, he returned to the sport he loved but this time around, he brought his new wife, three of her kids and his daughter.“Through hard work and perseverance, he earned his black belt and became highly competitive on the tournament circuit earning state and district titles,” Nero said.This year, he qualified to compete for the world champion title in both Weapons Sparring and Traditional Sparring.DuBois said his goal for the year was to just earn a state title.“I set my eyes on being a state champ .. but I got much more,” he said.Dubois’ wife earned her black belt and their daughters recently promoted together and will earn their black belts this week. Gabby Nero, Mary’s daughter, is 16-year-old who manages to balance a full-time job, online high school, training and overcoming several medical procedures to make her dream of district champion come to life with not just one title, but four.“It's refreshing to hear about a teen who is a role model and working hard to help train others to be contributing members of society,” Mary Nero said.Gabby recently competed in the American Taekwondo Association’s District Champion Tournament in Mesquite, which included the top 10 competitors from Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico and Texas.Gabby has been studying taekwondo since age 4.She has fought defects in the circulatory system, known as arteriovenous malformation, in her arm and has undergone five bouts of very painful shots to try to kill the veins. The shots were not successful so doctors removed the veins in November.Despite the setbacks, she pushed through the pain and continued training three hours a day. She also assists with teaching at the school.Gabby said the pain in her arms was severe but she never thought of giving up.“I just kept pushing and pushing, I never stopped,” she said.Her next challenge is to win a world champion title.“After finishing fourth place this year she is well on her way,” said Mary Nero.
Susan McFarland, 817-390-7547 Twitter: @susanmcfarland1