Students from Chris Welbon Karate Club brought home medals from the state, national and international level throughout their tournament season in 2022.
Karate students at Plant City’s Chris Welbon Karate Club (CWKC) put together an incredible tournament season in 2022, racking up dozens of medals over five tournaments before several went on to place at the AAU National Championships and the World United Karate-Do Federation World Championships. With 22 athletes on the dojo’s tournament team, they combined for 138 total medals over their five major tournaments this year, including 76 bronze medals, 32 silver medals, 28 gold medals and several competitors narrowly missing the podium by just fractions of a point. Eleven year old Carter Bayes, 11 year old Jenna Yaninich and 12 year old Mason Green all earned the distinction of overall top athlete in their age division, while 10 other athletes from the dojo were ranked in the top three for their age division in either kata (form), kobudo (weapons kata) and/or kumite (sparring.)
“It was a comeback season,” Welbon said. “Because of COVID and everything, it was one of those comeback seasons. Things were really rough during COVID but things started to open up a little bit more, everybody was ready to train full bore again, making more contact and being able to train with some more fierceness without as much of a threat of getting sick. We had a few injuries, their feet or hitting elbows, we had a couple of students hurt their knees and things like that. So we had to overcome some of that but all-in-all it’s been a fantastic season. It’s a young team but we did the best we could with our young students. I trained them just like they’re elite athletes, that’s what we do. We just train to the highest level that we possibly can and they rose to the occasion.”
In late June, the team sent 14 athletes to the 2022 AAU National Karate Tournament in Fort Lauderdale where over 400 athletes from across the nation met in Florida to compete against the top karate competitors in the country. Participating in kata, kobudo, individual kumite and team kumite, all 14 athletes came home with at least one medal around their neck, winning 14 bronze, eight silver and seven gold medals.Yaninich, Mason Green, 10 year old Levi Green, 10 year old T.J. Bright, 12 year old Gian Gonzales and 16 year old Nathan Gould all left the tournament as National Karate Champions in their age divisions.
“I just want to keep doing this and never stop fighting,” Yaninich said after winning two gold medals and a silver medal at nationals.
Several of this year’s national competitors from CWKC, including Yaninich, were in attendance at the AAU National Karate Tournament in 2021. Another one being Bright, who won three gold medals as an underbelt last year before earning his brown belt and competing in the advanced division for his age group this year.
“I was much more ready this year than all my previous years at nationals,” Bright said after earning one gold and two silver medals in 2022. “Competing against the black belts was tougher, but there weren’t a lot of black belts in my age group and division. Competing in the high division makes me a lot better because I’m fighting people that are better than me at things and it helps me improve.”
Welbon noted how much growth he’d seen from Bright, not only in his ability but in his technique and his mental calmness.
“He’s one of those really talented kids and he trains really hard, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Welbon said. “For how young he is, he’s not one of those kids that you really have to push. He wants it, he’s hungry, he’s a very hungry competitor, he wants to do his best, he wants to get out there and win, he enjoys winning and he enjoys karate. He loves it and he’s one of those kids that’s always at the dojo. This year the difference really is that he’s just more seasoned now. You can see that his skill level has improved, he’s sharper with his techniques, he’s a smarter fighter now. He’s sparring and he’s working, he’s not just charging in all of the time like he used to. If he gets up on points he’ll work the clock a little more, he’s better at listening to his coaches when he’s in the match. All that is just a part of being a better competitor and he’s young, the sky’s the limit for him.”
For Gould, limited participants for his division and age group led Welbon to promote him to the advanced division after just over two years of training, despite the division typically being reserved for those with at least four years of training.
“The thing with Nathan is that with his division, at the beginning of the year we noticed that there was hardly any competition for him at his level and his age group,” Welbon said. “That wasn’t healthy for him, he needed more competition, so I bumped him up to advanced which is something we usually wait two years for. You stay at intermediate for two years and then move to advanced in your fourth year because you’re only supposed to go to advanced when you have four years of training, and he barely has two. I bumped him up to advanced just to get experience. I said, even if he doesn’t win anything, he has experience and then he really trained. We worked and practiced, he did some private lessons and he really excelled and he held his own in his very first year there. Even though he’s not really that level of competitor as far as his time in training, he rose in his ability to be able to be very, very productive in that division.”
Immediately following the AAU Nationals, the WUKF World Championships began in Fort Lauderdale as well, previously held in Romania in 2021. With over 1,200 athletes representing 36 different countries, CWKC sent 12 athletes to compete and represent Plant City on the world stage as a part of Team AAU/USA. Of the 12 competitors, three medaled with Bright winning a silver medal in kobudo, Mason Green winning a bronze medal in kumite and Gould winning a silver medal in kobudo.
This year’s success resulted in CWKC being named a Top 20 club in the nation by AAU, the dojo’s ninth consecutive year earning that distinction.
“It just shows that even being a small school here in Plant City, we can hold our own with some of the big dogs in Chicago and New York and Atlanta, some of the big cities,” Welbon said. “We still do very well and are very competitive even though we’re not one of the mega schools. The students that we have here work hard and they’re talented and I just enjoy what I do. It’s one of those things where I think that if you love what you do and put your all into it, that fruit will grow. That’s what we do. That’s how God works and that’s how we work here at the dojo.
On the horizon, CWKC has their eyes on their final major tournament of the season in the AAU Junior Olympics, being held in Greensboro, North Carolina on July 28 and 29. Following the Junior Olympics, many of the athletes will spring right into offseason training before the 2023 tournament season begins in January.