A History of the WKA
For fifty years, the Washington Karate Association (WKA) founder and president, Julius Thiry, has inculcated Karate-do techniques and tenets to thousands of students worldwide who have stood testament, and the test of time, to his teaching brand. While there will always be exceptions, Hanshi Thiry's lessons have translated into a vast number of vested, productive citizens of their respective communities within a wide spectrum of pursuits. For fifty years, there has been a continuity of purpose, personal attention to detail and oversight, that has elevated Karate standards-student by student--- throughout Washington State, the United States and the World. Based upon the WKA model, this standard has proven itself by thoughtful incremental steps toward excellence at every level. Leading by example, Julius Thiry has been pro-active and dutiful to the art and sport of Karate in a way that is historically shared by a handful of notable karate-ka. Rather than a skill or niche, WKA instruction has manifested into many meaningful successes at all levels of leadership, institutional and individual.
Flight from Hungary
Such an appreciation for opportunities, and the acquisition of the requisite work ethic, is no accident. As a young student in communist Hungary, Thiry was well schooled in constraints, vacuums, and the frustration caused by unrealized potential. He found his personal outlet in the world of sport as an excellent athlete participant on a wide swath of sport teams. A hockey player and skier in the winter, a soccer player throughout the year, with a special affinity for boxing, he thrived when able to drive himself without political obstacles. Under the thumb of the communist Soviet Union, a promising athlete had perquisites. For this 17 year, old, it was 'all the fresh orange juice I could drink' that he appreciated as a member of the famous Hungarian Army's boxing club.
Joining the likes of four-time Olympic gold medalist, Laszlo Papp, 'I knew what it took to train with elite coaches,' he recalls. As fate would have it, there was a meaningful nexus of interests that abruptly ended his boxing plans. At the onset of the fall of 1956, young university students spontaneously erupted into what was to become the Hungarian Revolution. Asked roadside if he wanted to jump into a truck bound for the National radio station, Thiry joined the anti-communist effort without hesitation. Along with other 'Freedom Fighters', he helped to take over the airwaves, procure the rifles locked within government strongholds, and connect with sympathetic military. Young men and women with their eye on democracy, fought ferociously for short victories that initially turned away the Russians who fled across the border. In the end, they were overturned by a lack of the promised western military support that followed encouragement from Radio Free Europe. Nevertheless, it was the Hungarian's battle and they fought the second wave of 3000 tanks into Budapest. The vast Soviet troops that re-entered Budapest laid waste to the city despite best efforts. This, too, was fortuitous for an eighteen-year-old whose options had run its course when the Hungarian secret police sought out the anti-communist insurgents. With a warning from neighbors on his way home from University, Thiry knew he was targeted when informed of a search of his home.
With fifty dollars in his pocket, he made his way to the city train station and boarded for Austria. "It was too easy," he recalls. "Something wasn't right. So, I jumped before one of the stations in the middle of farm country. It turns out my instincts were correct. All trains to Austria were stopped en route, searched for freedom fighters, and then placed on designated trains that were re-directed to Siberia." He had no idea where he was but a friendly farmer took him in for the night and directed him to follow a star that would lead him into Vienna. But, it was mid-November and the temperature had dropped well below freezing. Without proper clothing, it would be impossible to survive the night or elude the noses of patrolling guard dogs across open fields. For most seeking western sanctuary, it was fatal. The manure piles, built high in the fallow fields for the winter, offered both heat and a way to obscure his scent from the Russian patrol dogs. Buried within the manure, he survived the first night. For two successive nights, the 18-year-old crawled his way to the Austrian border. "Of course, they hosed me down immediately," Thiry recalls.
It was 28 years before he could enter Hungary again and see his family. Even at that time, it was still years away until Hungary became an autonomous democratic country in 1989. A lot happened within a decade.
Founding the WKA
For three years, Hanshi waited for a visa to enter the United States. During that time, he travelled to Germany to continue his studies. While on the Munich University campus, he discovered a gymnasium and a boxing program. In lieu of money, Thiry made an agreement with a receptive boxing coach to wager his way into the club by fighting matches. It was in the Munich University gym that he noticed a University student practicing karate katas. Upon hearing of the comparison of the kata to shadow boxing, the two squared off to see whose fighting skills might prevail. An inside fighter, Hanshi could get the better of the karate-ka until he found himself the recipient of a well-placed kick,' looking up from the ground'. They began once more, he with classic European boxing skills and his opponent who 'fought in a way we Europeans considered somewhat ungentlemanly…but certainly effective!'. Hanshi began daily karate lessons with his new-found friend. They practiced together for two years until an American visa came through.
Once in the US, studies of Judo and Japanese karate continued. Having earned black belts from various instructors in various systems, he was moved to forego his financial broker's job and open a dojo in Seattle, Washington. In 1966, the doors of the Ballard dojo opened as the Washington Karate Association. He was the first instructor in the United States---and probably the world--- to open karate doors to children and female students.
The School of Champions
Over the years, the 'School of Champions' produced more national and international champions in the sport than any other organization. As the USA National Karate Referee Chairman, Thiry helped grow American karate in technical strength with unprecedented numbers of high ranking, capable sport adjudicators. To prove a point regarding the importance of technical proficiency, he fielded WKA students to the USA national tournaments and team trials. Having swept that first National event in gold medals at the black belt elite levels in all categories, he also managed to collate his students and one other American athlete, to take part in an invitational kumite team match against Japan. The Japanese team counted 4 world champions amongst the members. It was a hotly contested, and the American contingent lost by a slim margin. But it was a moment that underlined American potential.
Thiry was recruited to coach the national team---but only in Kata on behalf of one male and one female athlete representative. "I coached the kata male representative to a World Silver medal. The female member refused my help. She didn't get out of the first round. I decided to bring three women to the next national championships to help remedy that situation," he recalled as a frustration. The following year, the three WKA women took first, second, and third place in three different sport categories. Within four months, they won a World silver medal---the USA Team's only medal. Even though they prevailed at the national championships, the appointment to the national team remained a subjective criterion and were refused a spot in any individual category won at the national championships and during the 'team trials' following. The lack of an appropriate athlete selection process presaged challenging issues on the horizon.
The USA National organization grew technically by leaps and bounds; American referees made stunning progress under Thiry's tutelage suggested by the international medals garnered. Seasoned referees who were better trained and were better able to discern qualified athlete candidates. Administratively, the landscape was different. After the USA Karate Federation was dismissed from the US Olympic Committee for ten points of serious infractions, Thiry tried to influence USAKF leaders to properly input changes. Such necessary alterations were required to re-apply for Olympic membership. In lieu of action, the USA National Karate Federation (USA-NKF) was formed with likeminded membership. This new coalition applied for the National Governing Body status for the sport of Karate. In 1995, the USA NKF was founded. Karate re-applied amongst other organizations that similarly sought a legally rectified, organized sport organization, and surfaced as the National Governing Body for the sport of Karate, with full recognition, within the Olympic family once more.
As a USOC Board member, Thiry was joined by earnest USA NKF co-founders to apply for inclusion as a Pan American Sport. When this second arduous process was completed, Karate was included in the Pan American Games. The next step was beyond the purview of American karate. For twelve years, since its inception as an organized world body, World Karate was omitted as an International Olympic Committee member. With the go-ahead from the World Union of Karate-do (WUKO) President Jacques Delcourt, Thiry prepared a legal case to end a 12-year contentious battle between international concerns claiming the right to represent Karate within the International Olympic Committee. For half a year, a comprehensive case was developed with the help of 12 years of organizational records and communications submitted by WUKO on the matter. With the facts in hand, a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland with IOC representatives was so conclusive, the potential case was settled out of the Court of Sport (CAS). With a decade of convoluted roadwork now politically, administratively, and technically paved, Karate has found its way to become an Olympic sport as of 2020.
His ability to forward Karate's presence at every institutional level has culminated in a host of other unsung 'firsts'. Under the radar, was Hanshi's ability to put forward a conscientious program for young children. In 1972, he presented to the World Championships in Paris, France, a sampling of the possibilities with a boy's 12-year-old advanced synchronized kata demonstration. A standing ovation led to repeat international demonstrations, proving a point that children were more than capable of learning karate techniques traditionally reserved for adult men. It was the WKA that began 'Kinder Karate' trademarked with a pedagogy emulated throughout the karate communities. Today, Karate demographics have responded to the professional medical recommendations that karate is an activity developmentally appropriate for the youngest ages. Women, having made significant gains in the World sport arena, were some of the first females in the world to take their place as karate instructors. At the WKA, the training requirements for women never had special female white striped 'black belt' caveats per the norm at the time.
There were many other firsts that came in quiet bits and pieces. A little-known fact is the part played by Julius Thiry to have the practice of karate legally approved in the Soviet Union. Taking advantage of the host city status, he worked to include karate in Washington State's Goodwill Games. Meeting personally with Russia's Sport Minister in Seattle, Thiry meant to convince the minister to help legalize Karate as a sport in the Soviet Union. After the requisite vodka shots and formal appeals, Karate was legalized in the Soviet Union and took part in Seattle's Goodwill Games exhibitions in July 28-29, 1990. In fact, the Soviet Union was inspired to send two full teams.
The list of achievements is vast. Fifty years has yielded as many vital innovations, culminating in the founding of the International Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu Karate-do Federation (IHSKF). Upon the death of Soke Teuro Hayashi, Thiry has again influenced the trajectory for elite Karate-do tenets to be canonized institutionally within the newly formed organization. Approved international karate organizations are invited to share experience and expertise, compete, and enhance their technical repertoire. The focus is upon the philosophy that karate-do, correctly taught, with optimism, integrity, and opportunity, will yield incalculable benefits for the people it serves. The fiftieth anniversary meant to celebrate Julius Thiry is also a celebration of those who, through the half century, have cumulatively proved that loyalty, integrity, and a rigorous work ethic has significantly determined the trajectory of Karate-do.