Samantha Krystantos has trained in karate since she was just four years old. Now 14, she’s set to put her skills to the test against international competition at the 18th Maccabiah Games.
Krystantos received her first black belt when she was nine and earned her second-degree black belt just two years later. For the past two years, she’s divided her time between working toward her third-degree black belt – there are 10 in all – and teaching part-time at Northern Karate School Thornhill as a sensei, or master.
To balance school work and her extracurricular activities, including dance lessons, the eighth grader has to be fairly disciplined with her time.
Then again, as a sensei, discipline comes with the territory.
“It’s pretty hard,” she admitted, “because I also have homework and next year I’m going to be in high school, so I have a lot of projects and exams I have to study for. But I try to make time for it.”
Krystantos teaches classes twice a week and also takes classes with both master-level kids ages four to 17 and adults.
As someone who instructs both adults and children, Krystantos has had to find ways to accommodate the needs of both age groups.
“Sometimes with little kids, it’s hard for them to focus,” she explained. “You have to try and get them to listen to you. But we try to treat the younger kids the same as the adults, so we push them just as much.”
As with any martial art, karate requires one to be both physically and psychologically focused, both when sparring with opponents and especially when teaching others.
Fortunately, Krystantos has an innate ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
“Whenever she’s up there, she just blocks everything out,” her father, Mitchell, said.
He also takes classes at Northern Karate and is currently on his advanced blue belt. His sensei, strangely enough, is his daughter, and in case you think there’s any familiar father-daughter interplay during lessons, Mitchell said that’s simply not the case.
“When we’re in the dojo [training area], she puts me on the ground,” he said matter-of-factly.
“She makes me work for it… At home, she’s my daughter, but in the dojo, she’s ‘Sensei Sam’ and she’ll have me doing pushups. It’s the only time she actually gets to punish me.”
Although karate is primarily a discipline first and a combat sport second, Krystantos said her training has developed her reflexes and senses to the point that she would have no problem defending herself outside the dojo, even against a much larger person.
“Karate teaches you a lot of things, like how to get out of situations… So, if somebody on the street came to grab me, I would know what to do.”
People are generally surprised to learn this lithe teen is not only a participant in the Maccabiah Games, but that she’s a competitor in the karate tournament. As might be expected, she’s seen her fair share of amazed reactions.
“When I tell people I’m going to the Maccabiah Games, they’re like ‘Oh cool, for gymnastics?’ and I’m like, ‘No, for karate.’ People don’t really expect a girl at 14 to be into karate,” she said.
Krystantos – her family takes its name from her father Mitchell’s stepfather – is looking forward to her first visit to Israel to celebrate her Jewish heritage and see the famous sights on a tour that’s organized for the athletes.
“All my friends are Jewish, and I just feel really excited to go there for my first time… People tell me it’s such an amazing experience,” she said.
It costs $7,500 to send an athlete to the games, and the Krystantos family has been actively raising funds for Samantha and her teammates to help cover a portion of the cost. They’ve organized a Spar-a-Thon involving members of Northern Karate and their friends, as well as upcoming event at the Promenade Mall on June 13, and they’ve solicited donations at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Walk With Israel .
“It’s a team effort,” Mitchell said. “There are some people on the team that just don’t have the luxury we have, and we’re trying to get them [support], too.”