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Gainesville mother of four spars her way to top of a karate event
Susan Harkins to defend her world championship title in November in Dublin
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Susan Harkins, 43, is an instructor and a student at Haymore’s United Karate Studio in Gainesville. She won the world championship title in point sparring for the women’s 42 and older lightweight division last year at the World Karate Commission World Tournament. - photo by Erin O. Smith

A home-schooling mother of four, Susan Harkins jumped back into karate after watching her kids participate in the sport from her own childhood.

Thirteen years later, she’s looking to defend her title as a world champion in November.

Training and teaching at Haymore’s United Karate Studio on West Avenue in Gainesville, Harkins won the world champion title in the women’s 42 and older lightweight division for points sparring last year in Orlando. She plans to defend her championship this year in Dublin, Ireland.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Harkins said, describing the way she feels when competing.

Having started around 14 years old, Harkins said she faded out of martial arts as school and other club commitments took priority. She and her husband, Mitch Harkins, own Cartridge World in Gainesville, where she tackles the accounts payable when outside of the karate studio.

But like football or any other sport, watching her kids in the arena reminded her of the rush of competition.

“It got me wanting to come back again,” Harkins said, who started training again in 2003.

That required a coach and time in the arena. Jim Haymore, founder of the studio, first taught Harkins as a teenager. And he still does now.

“She’s only had one instructor — me,” Haymore said.

For three days a week, Harkins’ training regimen consists of running 3 miles, five rounds on the heavy bag, five rounds of jump rope, 100 pushups and 100 sit-ups.

“She’s a very diligent, disciplined, even-keeled person,” Haymore said.

The training conditions Harkins’ body to optimum sparring level in karate, in which she earns points by making contact first against her opponent. Contact points include the front, back, side and top of the head; the front and side of the body; and sweeps below mid-calf, according to World Karate Commission rules and regulations. Every action must be controlled and well-timed.

In the event of a downed opponent, the other competitor is allowed three seconds to score by punching. No kicks are allowed.

In points sparring, competitors use the following techniques to earn points: Jab and reverse punch, back fist, ridge hand, front kick, side kick, spinning back kick, roundhouse kick, hook kick, crescent kick, axe kick, sweeps below calf and any jump kick, according to the WKC rules and regulations. All techniques must display control, balance and focus.

A winner is declared after one round lasting two minutes in point-fighting elimination rounds, according to WKC rules. The gold medal final match is two rounds of two minutes.

Haymore said a competitor must first qualify at a regional and national tournament before the world championship.

Following her gold-medal victory in points sparring last year, Harkins said she wants to compete in continuous sparring, where opponents try to outscore one another using different techniques before the judges.

All of the punching and kicking of the sport comes with its share of lumps for those on the mat. Harkins previously suffered a torn ACL injury and required surgery.

“You get bruises, you get black eyes, and you get all that good stuff,” she said. “My husband loves it when I come home with black eyes. Not really, but he’s probably used to it by now.”

From ages 14 to 20, all four of Harkins’ kids got involved with martial arts, the two oldest being black belts. Harkins recently achieved her third-degree black belt status following her world-champion bout.

For the black-belt test, students must show kicks, punches, pre-arranged fighting moves and breaking boards among other techniques.

“We only break boards here like once a year because it’s just expensive and makes a mess,” she said.

Harkins, who originally went to college to become a teacher, shares her knowledge with the younger generation. She instructs the 8- to 12-year-old children at the karate studio and will assist Haymore with some of the older classes.

“She’s a good complement to what I do,” Haymore said. “She watches very carefully … and she’s got a good ability to know what I want out of a student without having to ask me.”

Harkins said people should not be intimidated by the pursuit, as “everybody starts off with the same white belt wrapped around their waist.”

“It does require a bit of talent, but it also just requires a lot of time and training,” Harkins said.

Pointing to the sign above the studio, Harkins said the sport unites competitors as everyone studying the martial arts tries to improve one another.

“It doesn’t matter who you are. You can always better yourself,” she said. “You’re not compared necessarily to anybody else, but you just want to make yourself better.”