Upon first impression, Brianna Ray is a typical American teenager.
The Lumpkin County High School sophomore keeps her long hair tied back in a ponytail and her video games are strewn around the base of the television.
But after a few minutes with Brianna, it’s clear this 16-year-old girl is more fierce than most. She’s a first-degree black belt in Korean-style martial arts and is on her way to earning her second degree black belt.
For the past two years, she has competed on the international stage for Team USA for the World Kickboxing and Karate Council. The council consists of 51 countries which send their top martial artists to compete against one another in weapons, forms and sparring competitions. This year’s competition was in Taranto, Italy, in October.
Brianna left the competition with two gold medals in Korean form and kickboxing and two bronze medals in hard-style fighting and sparing.
Brianna said she never expected her love of karate would carry her across the world. She hopes she’ll have more opportunities in the future.
It seems she will. Brianna is working as an extra on a film called “Barely Lethal” starring Jessica Alba.
Brianna smiles as she watches a video of herself at a martial arts competition. The caption imposed over the image reads “Brianna: ‘The Beast.’”
Brianna began studying the sport when she was 9 years old. She earned her black belt three years ago.
Her mother, Tammy Ray, is also a black belt. She started practicing martial arts about six months after her daughter “for the cardio and exercise.”
“My instructor has always told me once you get your black belt is when you first start to learn more about it,” Brianna said. “It all comes together and that’s really true.”
“It helps you understand what the moves are, why you’re doing that and why you’ve been doing that,” Tammy Ray added. “That’s what becoming a black belt is helping with, actually learning more to ask the questions about why are we doing this.”
In the last year, Brianna has put her knowledge to the test in 26 competitions. And competing is her favorite part. In fact, she’s won so many trophies the high shelves of her home gym can’t hold them all. Dozens of the more recent trophies line the edge of the soft yellow mat.
Smiling proudly, she said there should be more, but she had to throw away all of the trophies she won during her first year because there wasn’t a place to store them at the time.
Brad Bowelle, chief instructor of United Karate Studio in Dahlonega, said he’s impressed by Brianna’s dedication to the sport and how quickly she rose through the competitive ranks.
“I’ve got 25 years experience teaching martial arts,” Bowelle said. “There are people above me in my organization with more talent and experience and we’ve all basically come to the conclusion that she is quite likely the most talented person in this region in the last quarter century in terms of raw, natural talent and capabilities. She’s pretty special as far as that goes.”