WRITTEN BY MARK HOUSER
For a petite woman, business major Sereen Askari packs a frightening punch—and her reverse roundhouse kick is pretty special too.
The sophomore from Moon Township is one of the most talented karate athletes in the country. The firstdegree black belt took first place in July at the national junior championships in Greenville, S.C., in the lightweight class (under 60 kg./132 lbs.) for females ages 18-20. That earned Askari a place on the U.S. junior team for the Junior Pan-American Championships in Montreal in August.
It wasn’t the first international tournament for Askari, who hopes one day to compete in the Olympics. If she does, she will have to wait until 2020; karate is recognized and sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, but lost to golf and rugby in a close vote last year to decide what new sports to add in 2016.
Askari has been competing since she was seven. She trains at the Pennsylvania Shotokan Karate Club, the Sewickley dojo of U.S. team coach Dustin Baldis, who studied sport management at RMU. Her mom is a Colonial too—Kelly Askari is majoring in organizational studies.
Sereen Askari of RMU fights Maria Reyes of Ecuador for the gold medal in women's middleweight kumite (53-60 kg, or 117-132 lbs.).
WRITTEN BY MARK HOUSER
At first Sereen Askari didn’t realize the punch had broken her nose.
The sophomore business major was too wired on adrenaline to feel much of anything. She was focused on the Ecuadorean who had just hit her. Clad in white robes the two women squared off in the gold medal match of the Pan-American Junior Karate Championships in Montreal in August.
Unlike boxing, in karate matches, or kumite, fighters are supposed to pull their punches and kicks so as not to injure the opponent. After a strike they withdraw to wait for a scoring decision from the judges and referee. As she backed up, Sereen felt blood pouring out of her nose. "Then my head started spinning a bit and I started to think, wow, how come this hurts so much?"
For the first time in the reigning junior U.S. middleweight champion’s career, officials stopped her match because Askari was too hurt to continue. They surrounded her to examine her nose, which now pointed a bit to the side. Another hit there, and she would probably need plastic surgery. It wasn’t worth it. They advised her to quit.
Her coach, Dustin Baldis of Pennsylvania Shotokan Karate Club in Sewickley, knew what was likely to happen then: Askari would get the gold medal in a disqualification. It was already obvious that the Ecuadorean athlete, Maria Reyes, would be penalized for excessive force.
Spectators waited for 10 minutes – far longer than the 3-minute match was supposed to last -- as medics packed Askari’s nose to stop the bleeding. Finally, the referee asked her how bad the pain was, on a scale of 1-10; if it was worse than 5, he said, she should stop.
"I said 2. Really it was like a 9."
It has been a long road, and Askari, 19, isn’t a quitter. Before the two elimination matches she had won at Montreal to get to the final, before her victory at the U.S. National Championships in July to make the team, were more than 10 years of training and competition, usually without any fanfare outside her friends, family, and a small circle of martial arts enthusiasts.
Most college athletes enjoy some recognition on campus, if not fame. Even if they’re not in a marquee sport, athletes are part of a university team. They go through training and games together, usually live together, share jokes and stories, lean on each other. For Askari, it’s a bit different. She drives to practice in Sewickley, and travels to competitions with her parents.
She doesn’t emphasize the differences, though.
"Obviously, karate’s on my mind 24/7 and I’m always thinking about my competitions, but I’m just like any other athlete here. I’m an ordinary college student. I go to class, take tests, ask questions – I ask a lot of questions! Most of the people in my class know I’m in karate because I miss class a lot for competitions, but I don’t walk around wearing my Team USA jacket all the time."
Back to Montreal. Askari stepped back up to the line to face Reyes, who had been given a severe 2-point penalty for the punch to the nose. The fight resumed. Reyes landed a body kick to tie the match at 2-2. Askari countered with a body punch to take the lead late at 3-2, but Reyes countered with a punch, tying the score and sending the match to overtime.
Unfortunately for Askari, her determination and skill had carried her as far as it could. Reyes quickly connected with a kick to the head worth 3 points, and the match slipped away. She had to settle for a silver medal. (Askari also got a bronze in the women’s team competition, where she and her teammates tied with Canada; Venezuela won gold and Mexico won silver.)
"It was very honorable to continue on, knowing it’s an injury most people would give in and quit," said Baldis, himself a former member of Team USA and now national coach. ""I think it takes a lot of character for an athlete to get to the level she's at. Being able to stand up and finish a match really defines an athlete."
For now, Askari is back in class. She is also teaching karate at her dojo and a local charter school so she can get to her next competition, maybe in Europe, maybe Las Vegas, once her nose is fully healed. She needs to keep in shape if she has a chance at the world championships in two years.
"It would be the best feeling in the world to be a world champion," she says.