The master sensei, a man of significant stature who towers over his charges, puts a pad to the side of his head and instructs his pupil to kick. The boy obliges, and smacks the sensei with his stretched-out foot.
The sensei crosses his eyes, gives his head a momentary shake, and smiles. He instructs the class, the youngest of whom is just six years old, to pair up and repeat the kick. “Osu!” they reply.
It’s here in the dojo, circulating between students and correcting their movements, that Keith Klughart has found peace.
“This is pretty much my happy place,” says Klughart, 55, a former Canadian kyokushin champion. “This is where I’m most comfortable. I come in here and know what I’m doing. I got this. I can line the students up. I know what to teach them depending on what they’re preparing for.”
The Nelson Kyokushin Karate Club, which Klughart rents space for at Transcendent Combat Sports at 509 Vernon St., is currently celebrating an achievement that went largely unnoticed by the community. The club sent 10 athletes to the Calgary Cup last month to compete against over 300 martial artists from 21 dojos across the country.
Klughart’s dojo returned home second overall at the tournament, having finished with five finals appearances, three first-place victories and two runners-up as well as two additional awards.
The group took a break, and is now preparing for the Canadian Championships in Vancouver on May 7. That means, for the time being, Klughart is spending less time teaching the basics and more time reminding his students to keep their fists up.
Klughart learned that lesson much later in life than his students. Then 26, Klughart was working out in a Penticton gym when he heard what he thought was fighting in the next room. He was invited to try kyokushin, got beat up, but still enjoyed the experience. “Something just clicked for me,” he says. “It worked for me like right away. Thirty years later here I am.”
Kyokushin, developed in the 1950s by Masutasu Oyama, is a style of full-contact karate that excludes only hand strikes to the head. The physicality of kyokushin, the violence of it, appealed right away to Klughart.
“When I first started training to be honest I just wanted to be the baddest guy on the block. I was working as a bouncer in a nightclub and I liked the combat, I liked that aspect of it. That was when I first started training, that’s what I wanted. I wanted to compete. I liked the hard exercise. I wanted to fight. I liked the sparring. All that worked for me.”
Klughart went all-in on kyokushin. He finished third in his division at the 1994 Canadian championships, meanwhile building a successful business flipping real estate in the Lower Mainland. But after a decade he started to lose interest in the combat and started focusing on kata — stronger stances, more fluid movements.
For Klughart, kyokushin became more than an excuse to punch people. It became his art.
“Now my goal is just to teach it,” he says. “Without sounding too corny, I’d like to leave things better than I found it.”
Eight years ago Klughart moved to Nelson. He’d acheived first dan — the highest kyokushin rank is eighth dan — and decided he’d start a dojo. At first he tried holding practices at Blewett Elementary, but for two months no one showed. Thinking he needed to reach out to kids, Klughart got permission to run an after-school program.
Forty kids showed up the first day. One from that group stuck around. Solomon Lothrop has been studying under Klughart since he was six. Now 13, Lothrop is one of Klughart’s favourite pupils. The pair admit to butting heads occassionally, but their mutual respect is obvious. As Klughart speaks, Lothrop, a green belt, is patiently helping younger students practise.
Meanwhile, Klughart’s son Silas keeps himself busy in the dojo as a spectator. Silas, who just turned 16, is autistic. He doesn’t compete — he says he’s afraid of getting hurt — but Klughart doesn’t mind.
“Can you show Tyler how you kick Bob in the head?” Klughart says.
“Oh, I’m good at that,” says Silas, who proceeds to put his foot in the stern-looking dummy’s head.
That’s as much kyokushin as Klughart requires of his son. “[Silas is] a pretty good natured guy. I wouldn’t change him for the world.”
Klughart knows all about change. As he moved more into the role of sensei, he had difficulty letting go of his competitive nature. He finished first in the 2008 senior men’s championship and second again in 2011. His last competition was in 2012.
“It’s a hard thing to let go,” he says. “Nobody wants to admit they are getting a little older. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s painful. Once it gets in your blood it’s a hard thing to let go.”
Klughart’s life is now entirely focused on raising Silas and his dojo.
He’s a divorced retiree, and kyokushin gives him purpose. There’s no money in it, and he wishes he had more students. But the dojo, he hopes, will someday be his legacy, the good part of the community that people remember him for.
“I’m at a pretty good place in life right now. I really try hard,” he says. “That’s another thing about karate. You learn from it. You learn a lot about yourself in it. You try not to be so reactionary to everything. … It was hard to learn, but as you get older you figure it out.”