As part of the Women Warriors of FMAs series, I take a look at Karen Callahan, one of the most amazing martial artists and friend I’ve had the fortune to meet.

In looking at YouTube videos of Filipino Martial Arts or a cursory look at Filipino Martial Arts events, it is evident, like many martial arts, that males far outnumber females. This is unfortunate as I have seen a number of incredible female FMA players, both known and unknown. In this series, I will be writing about a number of them.

This first post is dedicated to Karen Callahan, a phenomenal Modern Arnis player and friend. She was beloved by many in the Modern Arnis community and has been missed since her untimely death from brain cancer in February of 2013.

Thank you to Maire Dempsey and John Doreck for their contributions to both part 1 and 2 of this post.

Karen’s Biography

Karen was born on October 15, 1954. She was the 4th of 5 kids and grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. Her interest in martial arts started as a senior in college when she was a student at Florida State University, where she joined a karate program. When she graduated from college, she moved back to the Chicago area. After exploring a few different martial arts, she found her first martial arts home as a student at Miyuki Miura Kyokushin Karate dojo. She earned her 2nd degree black belt under Miyuka Miura. After having two children, Karen moved back to the south suburbs of Chicago. She started to study TKD and earned a first degree black belt.

She started Modern Arnis when she was at Ken Smith’s school. She started in his Isshinryu Karate classes and earned a black belt. Sometime in the mid 1990’s, she started training in Modern Arnis. She fell in love with the art and would follow, along with Master Ken, Professor Presas around and train with him as much as possible. If you have Professor’s Victoria DVDs, produced in 1998, you can see Karen in the first couple of DVDs training with Master Ken and Professor.

In April of 2006, she took on teaching her own Modern Arnis class. While Karen eventually earned her 4th degree black belt (Lakan Apat) in Modern Arnis, she most loved teaching and spreading Professor’s art. She truly believed that the highest honor and achievement any martial artist can achieve is to pass along the knowledge and skills to her students so that they can succeed in the art.

Karen passed away February 11, 2013, after a brave battle against brain cancer. She fought to the end in true Warrior fashion.

Maire Dempsey’s Recollection of Karen

Karen and me

Karen took the most pride in martial arts as an instructor, and I was lucky enough to have been one of the first students in her Modern Arnis class. When she first started teaching we would have “marathon” classes that would regularly last over three hours. We would be training hard and having so much fun that we lost track of time. She absolutely loved to pass on the art and she worked so hard to find effective ways to challenge her students individually and collectively to improve skills not only in martial arts, but also in life. She wanted each of her students to be successful both on and off the mat, and to be confident in their skills. She would remind her students that a belt test, even if it was at a camp in front of Masters and instructors we were not as familiar with, was just an opportunity to show what we had learned. She loved watching her students show their skills.

As an instructor, Karen created a family atmosphere. Many martial artist talk about friendship and family, but with Karen it was not just talk. She emphasized the importance of everyone in the class supporting and helping each other both in class and in life. All of her students were friends and truly care about each other.

Karen also loved teaching because she learned so much from doing it. As skilled and knowledgeable as she was in martial arts, she was always learning and refining her skills. Always wanting to expand her knowledge, Karen started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu just months before she got sick, at the age of 57. She decided that she wanted to hone her ground fighting skills. I actually started the class about a month before she did and was telling her how much fun it was. Karen was sold, as she was never wanting to miss out on great training or fun times. By the time Karen got sick, the two of us were training in different martial arts together 4 nights a week.

Although Karen was always the “student” longing to learn, she was also confident in her skills as an instructor. She never felt the need to show off in front a class. She hated the formalities of titles like “Sensei” or “Guru” and actually forbid her students from calling her by a title. It was her refusal to respond to such titles that eventually led to her nickname, “Coach”. The nickname was quickly used by everyone at the dojo, including other instructors.

Despite her lack of formalities, Karen commanded respect on the mat. She just did not use words or rules to do so. She loved teaching and it showed. Her students saw her skills as an instructor in the manner she so easily passed along her knowledge. She was so dedicated to each of her students. As a result, her students were honored to be learning from her, and would have done anything for “Coach”. Her classes were full of hard training, mixed in with a lot of laughter and fun.

On occasion, someone in the class, often a new student, would act “bucky” as she called it. It would start with a subtle challenge to Karen’s authority or her skills. Sometimes this was done intentionally, but often it was subconscious. Those of us that had been in the class for a while would watch what was going on and start to panic a bit, as we would know where it was heading….center locks!! Karen would take command of the class by cranking the hell out of our wrists, especially whoever foolishly challenged Karen.

As a woman in martial arts, Karen had to deal with a lot to be taken seriously. She trained hard and hated it whenever she felt a male training partner was “taking it easy on her”. She was well aware that women in martial arts have to work hard and be tough to be taken seriously. Karen demanded the same amount of physical and mental toughness from other females. At the same time, she was the biggest supporters of females in martial arts. She would not tolerate anyone underestimating or disrespecting any female martial artist’s skills.

Helping women realize their own potential was very important to Karen. Therefore, in addition to teaching Modern Arnis, Karen also taught women’s self-defense classes. She held classes at various schools in the Chicagoland area. She also was a founding member of a charity called “One Light”, and with that charity she traveled to Kenya to teach young girls self-defense.

With Coach’s passing, we lost not only our instructor and leader, but our dear friend. She is in our hearts always, and continues to inspire us all to continue training hard and to remember to find the humor in life.

To be continued tomorrow.

Do you have any recollections or stories about Karen that you would like to share? Let’s hear them! Share them in the comment box below.


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