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Through karate, Szczesny has become a beacon for others with adaptive needs

Groton — We are all, indeed, good at something. It's just that finding it isn't always easy. Which is why it really does take a village.

And happily, for Andrew Szczesny, a man named Ralph Batty — Sensei Ralph as many know him in this corner of the world — appeared in Andrew Szczesny's village.

Szczesny, 20, has pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), referring to a group of disorders characterized by delays in the development of socialization and communication skills. It is on the Autism spectrum. And yet Szczesny has found something he's good at — karate — becoming a beacon for others with adaptive needs.

Szczesny became a Black Belt in March during a special three-day event in Selah, Wash. His story isn't merely uplifting as it relates to Autism, but for all of us who simply don't let the facts get in the way of our dreams.

"For years, students were not allowed to test in the U.S. for Black Belt grades if they could not physically pass a test set by the U.S. chief instructor," said Batty, who has been teaching karate around here for the last 25 years. "Sensei Chris de Wet and I decided to propose Adaptive Black Belt Grading. It got approved into the bylaws. Andrew was one of the first candidates. He was amazing.

"He never slowed down for three days. It was three-hour grading with two, 10-minute rounds of sparring. Then hundreds of reps of calisthenics. Andrew opened a lot of eyes and paved new avenues for students with adaptive needs."

Szczesny began karate when he was four. Now all these years later, he has found a niche, along with competitive bike riding and other events in Special Olympics.

"Karate was something that he could do," his mother, Sue, said. "Everyone said Sensei Ralph was great. So, we gave it a shot. His sisters are athletic, and Andrew would give things a try, too. Not the best at it, but he tried. Now his athletic ability has gotten better. And he's very social with all the other participants."

Batty said Szczesny's lack of dexterity in his hands doesn't limit him from kata (free form exercise) or with weapons style martial arts Bo (using a staff) and Sai (prong shaped metal baton). For the uninitiated: The weapons are big and scary and would intimidate anyone short of a Navy Seal. Now here's this kid who looks like a maestro with them in his hands.

"Because he has disabilities, it's not something I thought he'd be able to learn," his father, Ed, said. "Now he's doing Bo and Sai very well. He's very social with everybody in the dojo. They work with him well and he works with them well."

Szczesny has trained with former Patriots great Andre Tippett, whose post-football career has been awash in karate and other martial arts. He is now Sensei Andre.

"Watching Andrew train, I see determination, dedication and competitive drive," Tippett said. "Andrew is the perfect example of the Japanese term 'doryoku' or effort/endeavor. This is important in our training: to put as much effort as possible toward achieving a goal."

Batty, who teaches in Groton, offers adaptive classes, although Szczesny trains in what Batty calls the "mainstream class." Either way, this is a story that hits every note at every level. People who care, people who try and people who find a light for their way, despite what life throws at them.

"Andrew can't do everything perfectly right," Sue Szczesny said. "Ralph knows he has some limitations but allows him to do things at Andrew's level."

"Andrew's level" is now Black Belt. That means he's not the guy you mess with, "adaptive" or not. Turns out karate isn't the only thing Andrew Szczesny is good at. He's pretty good at being an inspiration to the rest of us, too.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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