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.

John Doreck’s Memories of Karen

Karen and John
The first story to come to mind was the first time I met Karen. We were at a Winter Modern Arnis camp at Rice University in Houston. I had heard about the girl from Chicago and was told she was pretty talented. We had been training in Arnis for about the same amount of time. You could see from meeting her that she carried herself with confidence, and watching her train, she moved really well. So, after our introductions, she and I decided to train together.

I have always considered women martial artist to be equal to men, all things considered. Nonetheless, I consider myself a southern gentleman. So, when we started to train, we were working the 1,2 5,12 drill. I decided that I wouldn’t push real hard. That was a BIG mistake. She started pushing harder each time and I got to thinking that I better drive harder. You could see the writing on the wall and the training just continued to escalate. Now I consider myself relatively strong, but unless I was on my game she was able to push me around, so I had to go faster and harder and really use footwork. My Modern Arnis friends including Mark Koehler, Earl Tullis, D.J. Wallace, and a few others were there. In my mind I couldn’t let them see this girl from Chicago push me around, so I had to go harder! We trained most of the day together and afterwards I was talking to her and she said she thought I was challenging her! The crazy thing was that she started the escalation and the whole time thought I was the one doing it. Even with that miscommunication, she and I hit it off very well and never missed an opportunity to train together throughout the years. We laughed about that day for many years afterward.

One of the many things about Karen that I always admired was her love and dedication to her students. Karen was an excellent instructor and her students were her first priority. I saw many times where she put her students needs above her own. She would have her students backs and was a wonderful role model for them. I was lucky enough to come up and train with them and taught a few seminars, Her students are very proficient and have her love for the art. Karen would make sure they could flow, which was one of Karen’s many talents.

When I first started training in Arnis it was under Professor Presas at camps around the country. We were fortunate enough to have him come down and stay with my instructor Al Garza for a couple weeks at a time. But we needed someone to train with when he wasn’t around, so we started training with Dr. Randi Schea. Dr. Schea focused on locks and strikes and finishing the fight quickly. Master Ken Smith was Karen’s instructor at the time and they had beautiful flow and strong Tapi-Tapi techniques. I wanted to be able to flow like they did and Karen liked our striking and locks. Since she and I trained together as much as we could we shared techniques, but, in all honesty, I benefited much more than she did. She could already strike and she knew the locks, but she more than anyone else taught me to flow. My Tapi-Tapi became much better with her patience and instruction. I will tell anyone that Karen is the reason I feel comfortable with Tapi-tapi.

The Arnis world lost an amazing Martial Artist when we lost Karen, but her legacy will live on in her students.

My Recollection of Karen

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I first met Karen at the 1999 Michigan Camp and was struck by her confidence and her knowledge of the art. I thought to myself “Wow, look at that Amazon Woman!” Little did I know until years later, that she hated that nickname but it fit her perfectly. She was tall (5’11”), was very fit, moved aggressively and had great footwork. Like John Doreck, I took advantage of any opportunity to train with her. I learned very quickly that you had better be on your game when training with Karen or I would be pushed all over the place. She would tell me and others “if you go hard, I’ll go hard.” Some didn’t listen and paid for it. Often we would spend time trying to figure out and work our way through techniques we had not seen before. One such time led to an embarrassing moment for me. She never let me forget it, just loving watch my face turn beet red.

We were at a Michigan camp. One of the Masters of Tapi Tapi was teaching a technique and after demonstrating it, told us to practice it. I paired up with Karen. We were both somewhat confused about the technique being taught. So we worked our way through it, not entirely sure if we had it right.

The instructor called the group back as it was evident that most of the attendees were confused about this technique. Karen was standing behind me while the instructor broke down the technique. To backtrack a bit, Karen’s version of a “high five” was polite and somewhat demure and done at shoulder level. It was as if she was almost embarrassed to be high fiving.

When it became evident that Karen and I had, indeed, understood the technique correctly, I was happy for both of us. I turned around to “high five” her, thinking that she was doing to do the same. Instead I high fived her right on her chest. I stood there in horror and with my face turning beet red. Karen knew right away it was an accident but exclaimed jokingly and loudly “Oh my god, you grabbed my boob!” laughing at the situation. My face turned even more red. She never let me live this down for a long time afterwards, enjoying seeing me blush big time. That sense of humour as well as her martial skill endeared her to many of us.

She was a phenomenal martial artist as well as an incredible human being. She’ll be sorely missed by many of her friends.

Do you have any recollections of Karen that you would like to share? Let’s hear them!

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