It’s hard not to admire Vitaly Padalka’s swift step and fluid motion as he quietly takes orders and quickly places food at Olives restaurant. He could go unnoticed, except for that moment of brief courtesy, which he gives impartially to each guest, when he stalls before checking the next customer.
Padalka is a good waiter, but as is common with so many waiters, something suggests there is more. Perhaps it’s his steady blue eyes. Or maybe it’s that he’s just a little too composed when confronted with an unhappy customer during meals.
There’s a good reason for the moderate demeanor. Padalka is a black-belt in karate and was recently a contender for a world championship.
Born in Russia, Padalka, 21, represented one of two United States teams in the Funakoshi Shotokan Karate World Championships in Las Vegas. He helped his team to a second-place finish in the kumite (sparring) team division.
Padalka placed third in individual kumite and second in the individual kata (forms) for his age category.
More than 500 individuals representing 20 countries competed in the championships. The other American team won the competition. France was third after having won the team title for the past two years.
“Yes, I was very nervous,” Padalka said. “So many people. And I hadn’t competed for two years.”
Before the competition, he quieted his mind with his habitual meditation and the calming knowledge that he had been to Las Vegas before for the world championships in 2002.
That first trip to Las Vegas from Russia led to a decision to move to America. He had competed well and saw the potential for increased opportunity in the United States. He had friends who lived in the mountains of Colorado, where they said they had found “heaven,” and where most anything was possible.
At the karate championships this year, Padalka was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do.
Padalka first settled in Telluride when he immigrated to the United States two years ago. He soon came to Aspen, where he said there was a better chance that more people would be interested in what he wanted to do ” instruct children in karate in his own studio. In the meantime, he waits tables at Olives while teaching a couple of classes a week at a rented studio at the Red Brick Center for the Arts.
According to the 10th precept of Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate, one must put his everyday living into karate in order to find “myo.” The Japanese translation of the word is “subtle life secrets.”
Padalka trains four to five times a week and applies karate to everything he does. Thus, the graceful movements across the dining hall. He laughs when he explains how often while working in the service industry he is tempted to pass over Funakoshi’s first precept, which states, “Karate begins with courtesy and ends with courtesy,” especially after training to rupture fat sandbags and break wooden blocks with his hands.
Padalka’s parents are both physicians in Russia. As doctors, they still struggle to stay ahead in Russia’s sluggish economy.
Padalka’s father, Sergey, made his son do karate as a child. Sergey’s homeland had forbidden him to practice the sport as young boy ” Karate was not permitted in Russia until the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Yes, karate is great for students,” Padalka said. “It gives kids self-defense. It is a competitive sport that is good for kids. It sharpens reflexes and helps with concentration and self-confidence. It is also good freestyle exercise.”
He also said that he is still learning and will be a student of karate all his life.
According to materials Padalka provided, karate developed more than 1,000 years ago as monastic training and later as a defense method Chinese peasants used against armed bandits. Karate means “empty hand” in Japanese; weapons are not permitted. A fighter must toughen his hands and feet by driving them into containers of sand, rice or gravel, and by striking sandbags and special punching boards.
“Karate became very important to me during my childhood,” said Padalka, who grew up with empty pockets and tough hands. And tough skin. “Yes, it is more than fighting. It is a way of life. It is about philosophy.”
The Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, which guide students toward enlightenment through self-mastery, self-realization and discipline, have a heavy influence on karate. The teachings of martial arts, including its strict physical regimen and breathing exercises, seek a similar end. Studies have shown that students of martial arts typically demonstrate lower levels of anxiety, an increased sense of responsibility and a higher level of self-esteem than the general public.
Padalka said he feels that even in such a privileged town as Aspen, children would be grateful one day for their training in karate.
“It doesn’t matter where you are. Karate is good for life, ” he said.
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