Credit self-discipline, dedication, or determination, or maybe it’s just genetic.
Thirteen-year-old Jean Newell is taking the karate world by storm. This season, he’s emerged as a force to be reckoned with, winning numerous awards including four medals, two gold and two silver, at the B.C. Winter Games in February.
Jean has a sweet, youthful face and slender build. Shaggy brown hair frames his freckled face.
“He looks like an angel but he’s very menacing when he’s on the mat,” his godfather Thierry Ponchet says.
Jean’s latest win includes two silver medals in one of the world’s biggest karate tournaments, the U.S. Open Karate Championships.
This annual competition, which took place April 7 and 8 in Las Vegas, Nev., saw more than 2,300 athletes from more than 45 countries, all competing for an international title.
Four days after the tournament, Jean is still taking it all in. “(I) definitely did well,” he says.
“We didn’t expect this victory. We would have been happy with the experience (of competing internationally),” Jean’s mother, Brigitte Newell says, adding that the experience hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
Jean, who lives in Oak Bay, has a brown belt in karate. He has been training since he was eight years old.
But Jean isn’t the only karate star in the family. His brother and coach, Geoffrey Newell, who has a black belt in karate, won bronze in last year’s national Canadian Karate Championships.
Geoffrey, 16, also referees numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open.
At first, both boys, who are home-schooled, started karate because they liked the idea of rising in performance and earning belts. They hadn’t even considered competitions, they say.
The brothers train together and have always moved up in belts together, from the beginning white belt all the way to brown, Ponchet says.
Jean isn’t eligible for black belt status until he turns 14.
Geoffrey says he’s noticed a “huge difference” in Jean’s performance since last summer, noting his brother has always been gifted.
“(Jean’s) technique has always been good,” Geoffrey says. “His strength and power of each technique has increased.”
Another improvement is his growing confidence. When Jean walks onto the mat, it’s as if he owns the ring, Brigitte says.
He used to shake “a little bit” through kata (choreographed) performances, Jean explains, but now his nerves are “next to nothing.”
Jean says he felt well-prepared going into the U.S. Open because he had been practising “all the time” two weeks prior to the competition.
Two of his opponents were difficult to beat, but Jean said he sparred better than ever.
“This is probably where he did his very best kata and his very best kumite (sparring),” Ponchet says.
Before a fight, Jean goes into such a focused state, not even his mother can speak to him, Brigitte says.
His ability to focus and stay that way under pressure is an advantage, Ponchet says.
“We’ve been so surprised to see how calm and focused (both boys) are when there’s things going on in all the different rings around you, there’s whistles and people shouting, they’re totally not deterred by that … they use it to their advantage,” he says.
Practising karate has brought out discipline and poise in both Newell boys, Ponchet says. The sport fosters good sportsmanship and teaches them self-control — traits that are valuable both inside and outside of the ring.
What started as the young boys’ wish to learn self-defence quickly turned into something much bigger, Brigitte says.
It’s the boys’ determination that’s gotten them this far, and possibly just French genes, since karate is popular in France, she adds.
Besides excelling in the B.C. Winter Games, Jean also struck gold in the Karate B.C. provincial championships in January and received a sportsmanship award in each of the two competitions.
After his performance in the provincials, where he beat out 50 other athletes from B.C., Jean has been invited to train with the B.C. team this upcoming season.
Jean says he will continue to master applications of the kata and learn to understand what each movement means, both requirements to earn a black belt. He also hopes to one day win gold for the national team, a team he cannot join until he is 14.
With continued study, brotherly team-work and support from his family, Jean might just reach his goal.
“They’ve got the determination, it’s beyond us,” Brigitte says, adding that she realized quickly how aggressive and tough Jean is.
“He’s tough, that’s the only way I can put it.”