Monday, January 17, 2000
The karate kid
Jesse Placourakis is a whizBy Rod Ohira
in the karate world, taking a
title at the All-Japan Junior
Championships at the age of 8
His emotions are masked by a stoic expression, the signature trait of a tough competitor.
Jesse Placourakis is the real thing, a karate kid who at age 8 was the youngest American to win a title at last year's prestigious All-Japan Junior Championships.
The Japan tournament, which is held every four years, is considered the Olympics of traditional full-contact sparring karate competition and the event attracted an international field of more than 600 competitors.
"Karate teaches you many different things about courage and patience," Jesse said. "When I'm in a bad mood, I know how to make myself relax."
Controlling anger is another factor, he says.
"When we play touch football, it's hard to figure out first downs so sometimes arguments lead to fights," Jesse said. "Because I know karate, I have to remain calm and not fight."
But coolness in competition is his strength.
"Sometimes I get hit hard and feel mad inside," he said. "But you keep it there. Sensei teaches us not to show anger because that's when your opponent can take advantage of you."
The Punahou student has learned his lessons well.
"Age-wise, he is tops in Hawaii and the nation," said Chuzo Kotaka, president and chief instructor of International Karate Federation.
In March, Jesse will try to earn promotion to 1st Dan (black belt).
"Some 9-year-olds have black belts from their own schools but black belts at our school are certified and it would be very rare for someone his age," Kotaka said.
Testing for promotion is an all-day affair that includes not only physical demonstrations of skills but also a written history test.
"It's tough, they try to break you," said Jesse's mother, former Miss Hawaii-USA Tina Marie Machado, who holds a black-belt ranking.
Jesse started taking karate lessons at age 5, about two months before his mother. At age 7, he won three gold medals at the National Championships in Orlando, Fla., and qualified for the Pan-American Junior Games.
But his mother held him out of the Pan-Am Games that year because she felt he was too young to compete at that level.
Both Jesse and his mother have won national age-group titles, a rare family championship combination. More importantly, karate has given them an opportunity to bond.
"It's something I can do with my son that's physical rather than sitting on the side watching," Placourakis said. "For me, it's an opportunity to know Jesse.
"I think it's important for children not only to hear parents say for them to do their best but to see you trying to do it, too."
Jesse is the second eldest of Aaron and Tina Marie Placourakis' three children.
The eldest daughter, 11-year-old Lexi, is a Hawaii horse jumping champion while 4-year-old Gabriella may start karate lessons next year.
"The main thing for me is I wanted the children to find a passion for something," Tina Marie Placourakis said.
Aaron Placourakis is the chief executive officer and president of Tri-Star Restaurant Group, a partnership that owns Aaron's Atop the Ala Moana, Sarento's Top of the I and Nick's Fishmarket in Maui.
Tina Marie says her husband is the children's biggest booster.
Jesse's goal is to represent the United States in Olympic competition. Karate is expected to become an Olympic sport, possibly in 2004 or 2008, so he has a good chance if he keeps improving, says Kotaka.
"Right now, I have pretty good basics," Jesse said. "But black belts have to be precise because you're not supposed to make basic mistakes at that level.
"Even if I get real good, I know I would drop fast if I don't keep working. Every time you go up, you got to try to keep going. It's the same in life."
Jesse, who also enjoys playing flag football and baseball, recently started playing golf and tennis.
"I think he has high potential in any kind of sport but I see only karate," Kotaka said. "He is a student with a good brain and as long as he practices, he can become a USA (18-and-over) champion."