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Palmyra women embrace karate

Karate enthusiasts Cindy, Renae and MaryRenae Chiovaro, Mary Elizabeth Allen and Cindy Girard have taken a stand (or a sparring stance) to improve their health – an effort that requires sheer physical stamina and mental grit.

The Lake Monticello residents joined the growing number of women who have learned to successfully fend off attackers and get in great physical shape by training in martial arts.

“I go straight from work to the dojo every day,” said Chiovaro, whose physical trainer at the gym encouraged her to practice karate to increase her body’s fluidity. “It’s something that doesn’t come easily for me and I love the challenge. It builds confidence.” And while she’s there for the workout, Chiovaro is increasingly glad she is able to learn ways to defend herself.

“Everybody should know how but especially women,” she said.

While Chiovaro had a decent start with training in physical fitness, not everyone begins a class as a hardcore contender. “I was a very active kid but I wasn’t an athlete,” said Allen. “I did a little bit of dance and marching band but was never on a sports team.”

Why did Allen choose karate? “It started with self-defense,” she said. “I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to be sure I could defend myself in any situation.”

Both women admit to tendencies of perfectionism, which the sport can challenge. “You really have to give yourself room in karate. There’s always a way to improve. That’s a big adjustment for someone used to picking stuff up very fast. You have to give yourself the space and the grace to adapt,” Allen said.

They are unlike their friend, Cindy Girard. “She is more laid back,” Allen said. “She’s the one who is always willing to try something. If she screws it up she just ends up laughing – and that gets us laughing too.”

Girard tried to explain her “anything goes” attitude. “Without getting on the floor and doing some of the stuff, you don’t know whether it’s for you or not,” she said.

At 44, she said it’s clear that “When we get older we need to watch and listen to our bodies a little bit more, but we can do it.”

Whether it’s getting outside one’s comfort zone, shifting responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim, or thriving through challenges and intensities, women are supposedly not “hard enough” for martial arts and are more often relegated to the sidelines. Not so for these three.

Girard “is fierce. When she wants something, she goes for it. She’s always up for a challenge,” Chiovaro said.

“Driving, I am yelling at people all the time,” Girard laughed. “It can translate to the mat. In the middle of a spar, if I get popped, I’ll come in a little harder. We have the face shields on so you’re not getting hurt. It’s still jarring and annoying so, if I take too many of those, I just kind of bull rush [the opponent] and take them down on the mat.”

Once “that skinny kid” whose arms and legs were always too long, Allen said, “Somewhere in my 30s everything kind of slowed down. I started doing this and a cardio kickboxing class.” Two nights a week spent at the dojo has had its rewards. “Between those two classes, my body shape has changed.  My cardio is probably the biggest thing that has changed. I started training a little, running, and because of all the other training in the dojo, I can run without breathing problems, which I did not expect at all.”

Like any worthwhile benefit, the hardest part of getting fit is showing up. “My first class I was near tears,” Chiovaro said. “Everybody goes through the same thing. It feels awkward when you come in but it is so rewarding.”

“I’m 44 years old and I study with 10-year-olds and 15-year-olds,” Allen said. “I have to go at a pace my body can go. I just received my purple belt, also known as fourth kyu, and it took me probably until this belt to accept that…but I am probably the healthiest I have been in my entire life.”

Stepping onto the mat may be intimidating to start, “especially if you’re going in and you see a class of all upper belts,” Girard said. “But it is definitely a confidence booster.”

And in addition to the boost of confidence she gets from karate, Chiovaro has learned more about herself. “I like to punch people in the face,” she said. “I’m glad I made myself walk through the door. It’s changed my life.”

“We only go through this party once so it’s a good idea to take care of what you’ve got so you can live longer and experience more,” said Allen.

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