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At age 10, she's a black belt winner - twice

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How does a girl follow up earning a black belt in karate at age 7?

Annie Chen has an answer: She earns her second-degree black belt at age 10.

The fourth-grader at Rashkis Elementary School in Chapel Hill did just that on Saturday, demonstrating her skills against bigger and older opponents at a rank and tip promotion ceremony at Karate International in Durham.

"It isn't about size. It's more about how you think about it," Chen said.

It isn't about age, either. The three black belt students who were tested on Saturday ranged in age from 10-year-old Chen to 52-year-old David Pottenger, a Morgan Stanley Smith Barney branch manager in Durham who earned his deputy black belt. In between was Meredith Kraine, 37, a Raleigh Food Lion pharmacist who earned the second degree black belt self-defense tip and will test for her third-degree black belt in August.

Forty other students passed their tests for rank and tip promotions, Karate International master instructor Diane Whitfield said. (See the list.)

"Annie is the youngest to have ever made black belt under us," Whitfield said by telephone Monday evening from Karate International, where Chen was back in class just two days after the black belt ceremony.

"Annie does everyting the same way," Whitfield said. "She gives 150 percent in everything she does. She is very focused. She is a great role model for all of the kids."

And for the adults, too.

"We can count on Annie to always be here," Whitfield said. " ... She's on our leadership team. She teaches adult classes. ... They look at her as an adult. They know what Annie's telling them is the thing to do."

Supported by dad Xilong Chen and mom Jing Wan, Annie Chen already is a veteran of the sport, having started taking karate at age 4. The lessons were "a birthday surprise," Chen said. She wasn't so sure at first.

"I didn't know much English then," she said by phone from home late Monday afternoon. "I was a little nervous then, but now I like it a lot."

These days, she said, she works out about three times a week, even more as she prepared for her black belt test.

"Annie prepared for four months," Whitfield said. "She has put in a lot hours and training."

Chen learned from Whitfield and grand master Jessie Bowen, and she worked many weekends with mentors Kraine and Erin Gallingan, who hold second-degree black belts.

"The test she did Saturday was not a child test. It was the test an adult would have to do," Whitfield said.

During her test, Chen - who weighs around 70 pounds - had to demonstrate the use of five Okinawan weapons and perform nine open-hand forms. She also faced 20 self-defense sets against an attacker, fending off 20 different types of attacks - including bear hug, choke, kick and punches. Then, Whitfield said, Chen had to spar.

"She fought a young man who is two years older than her and a foot taller. She showed no fear," Whitfield said.

Chen said she has just one thought when she goes against larger and older opponent: "I don't care who this is. I'm going to beat 'em."

That lack of fear could come because of Chen's favorite part of karate.

"I like the self-defense," she said. She hasn't had to use self-defense outside of the karate class, "but in karate it's part of the test," she said.

Karate does come in useful for Chen in school, most of Chen's friends "think it's cool" that she has such remarkable karate skills.

Karate "helps me focus more at school, and at home it helps me do things faster," said Chen, whose favorite subjects in school are math and science and who might one day like to become a scientist like her mother.

For someone who might be interested in learning martial arts, Chen offers advice from her own experience.

"It's really fun, but you have to really like it to actually do it," she said. " ... if you like it and want to go on, it isn't that hard."

It helps to have support, too, Whitfield said.

"Her family is just amazing. They are very dedicated to Annie and making sure she is here and is doing what she needs to do," the instructor said.

Chen is not done yet. She calculates she can progress to a third-degree black-belt in "probably a couple more years."

"I have to learn a lot more katas and lean more self defense," she said.

She already knows what to expect from the next big test.

When Saturday's ceremony was starting, she said, "I was really jumpy and nervous. I wanted to hurry and begin. ... When we got to the end and I got my second-degree black belt, it felt really good."

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- Teri Boggess


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