Kalani Simpson

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Black belts and
big scoldings

YOU can see it in the two of them, the family resemblance. The love. It shines through them, when they're together. It's obvious, if only you look.

They share the same dancing eyes, same easy smiles, friendly laughs, warm glows. Black belts.

Well, most of us can see it.

"A little kid said, 'Why do they call you Grampa?,' " Tony DiBrogrozcio is saying with a storyteller's delight. "I said, 'Well, because I'm somebody's Grampa.' She says, 'Who?' I said, 'Sensei Au.' She said, 'Yeah, but she scolds you!' "

And he laughs.

Of course she does.

So here they are together, at the scene of that story, at a dojo at the corner of King and University on a Thursday night. Grandfather and granddaughter. Shining eyes and easy laughs. White robes and black belts.

Elisa Au is a three-time world karate champion, a young engineer who spends her spare time training to stay at the top of her game.

She's leaving for New York today, to take part in the festivities as one of 10 finalists for the AAU Sullivan Award, which will be given Wednesday to the nation's top amateur athlete.

Grampa is, well ... her Grampa. He's a black belt, too. He took up karate in his 70s, following in his granddaughter's bare footsteps.

"That was six years ago," DiBrogrozcio says in his gentle, gravely, gargle-y voice. "I'm 81 now."

And he's a black belt now. How long did that take?

"Five years," DiBrogrozcio says.

And what about Au?

"When I was 10," she says.

Hmm. She started at age 5 ... 10 ... so, five years. Same-same.

Elisa Au is 'Sensei Au' to the students in her karate dojo.

SHE HAS THIS Sullivan Award thing now, she just got back from Vegas and Japan, she has the World Games in Germany in July. She's got a job, she's always jet-setting somewhere, she has to keep herself in tip-top shape. How long can she keep this up? How much more hard work at this pace?

How many more days as a karate kid?

"I don't know," she says. "A couple more years. I'm only 23, so I have a few more years."

And Grampa?

"As long as I can," DiBrogrozcio says. "I don't want to lay around."

DiBrogrozcio won age-group gold medals at nationals three separate years. But he's since slowed down on the competitive aspect of the sport. Done his share, he says.

In 2002, his granddaughter became the second American woman to win a world karate title. Last year, she added two more, the first person to have earned a pair of individual golds at a single Karate World Championships.

Holy cow. How much pau hana time goes into that? Well, four nights a week working at their regular classes at the International Karate Federation dojo, plus two more days on her own. Running. Cross-training. Conditioning.


"Three times," DiBrogrozcio says.

Well, that's enough, isn't it? That seems like plenty.

"For me that's enough," he says.

Besides, the man isn't training to stay world champ, the way his granddaughter is. He's got other things going on. Like bread. He makes bread at least once a week.

Wonderful Italian bread. Heavenly Italian bread. Oh, what bread.

"Oh, God," DiBrogrozcio says.

He's teaching Elisa how to do it, too, passing down the family recipe.

You could eat it for days. Except, well, most of us probably shouldn't.

"Not me," he says wistfully. "I'm only allowed one slice."

So it has to be the same with Au, doesn't it? After all, she is in training. She's a world-class athlete. She has to watch her nutrition. She can't afford to let anything slip. She couldn't possibly indulge herself in ...

She blushes. They look at each other, eyes shining, both glowing, and she gets that granddaughter grin.

"I'm really active," she says.

Au's 'Grampa' Tony DiBrogrozcio joined her as a karate black belt despite taking up the sport in his 70s.

Sullivan Award finalists

» Elisa Au, karate world champion

» Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps, Olympic swimming champions

» Paul Hamm and Carly Patterson, Olympic gymnastics all-around gold medalists

» Matt Leinart, football All-American, Heisman Trophy winner and NCAA Division I team national champion

» Steven Lopez, Olympic tae kwon do champion

» Cael Sanderson, Olympic wrestling champion

» Andre Ward, Olympic boxing champion

» Jeremy Wariner, NCAA and Olympic 400-meter champion

Source: Amateur Athletic Union

YOU CAN SEE it in the two of them, in this together now. The family resemblance. Dancing eyes, easy smiles, friendly laughs, warm glows. Black belts.

For years, proud Grampa just watched from the sidelines as young Elisa traveled everywhere, practiced every night, won again and again. He never thought of joining up.

Then one day he asked if he wasn't too old. He wasn't. And so he's been kicking in her footsteps ever since.

"What really started it," he says. "My wife died that same year. So I said, I'm not going to sit home. That's no good. So I found other things. The police station." He volunteers for HPD at the front desk in Pearl City, after having retired from the Navy and Hilton. "And then I decided, well this would be a good way to keep in shape.

"I lost 20 pounds since that point. And kept it off. I got a late start."

Ah, but he has an advantage, too. His granddaughter is the world champ.

And so he has a Sullivan Award finalist there to guide him, to teach him, to show him. And, yes, for scoldings, too.

"She scolds everybody when they do it wrong," he says.

She's not his main instructor, she says. But she helps.

"She's my study buddy," he says.

That sounds more like it. Maybe it's just the way she is with her grandfather, on this night, but Elisa Au doesn't really scold people, does she?

"Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!" DiBrogrozcio insists, adding a laugh. "And some of it's rubbed off on me."


"Oh, when I work these kids they're afraid. They agree: 'Grampa mean.' "

And when she was small, did he give her scoldings?

Au looks over, glowing, that granddaughter grin again. She melts at the very thought.

"Nooooo," she says. "He's Grampa."

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com

E-mail to Sports Desk


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