The theme of the day in the Challenge Martial Arts taekwondo class was self-control, and the students repeated the phrase in chorus while preparing for class to begin.
But there was plenty of laughter, too. For one warm-up exercise, the students paired up and squared off, each gripping the ends of each other’s folded belts, stepping over the belts in sequence and turning to try to cross the room, a sort of three-legged race requiring them to work together.
But soon afterward, they lined up again and bowed to instructed Heather Fritsche, engaging in a call-and-response intended to teach them about self-control, one of 15 character traits outlined in the taekwondo curriculum at the Nikiski martial arts studio.
The studio, located in the Nikishka Mall on the Kenai Spur Highway a few doors down from the M&M Market and the Treehouse Restaurant, opened its doors in June. Fritsche and her family moved to Nikiski with the intention of opening the studio after visiting and finding that there was a need for activities for kids, she said.
“That was something that people kept saying, that there’s nothing for kids here,” she said. “… People notice that we’re here and we’re new, but everyone’s been supportive.”
A Christian, Fritsche said she felt called by God to start the studio. She had some experience teaching martial arts to women in rehabilitation in San Antonio on a volunteer basis. While there, she said she began writing small essays to give to the women. Students at Challenge Martial Arts will also get those essays as part of the curriculum, she said.
The curriculum she teaches is faith-based, but she said it’s open to people of all beliefs. The goal is not to push her beliefs but to encourage the conversation, and she said she does develop both a secular and Christian curriculum if a student would prefer to memorize quotes rather than Bible verses with the 15 principles taught throughout the classes.
During the classes, she talks with her students about the lessons outlined in binders she distributes when a student enrolls. They focus on one principle per month, but black belt candidates have to learn an additional three.
“(Students) don’t have to agree with me, but I expect (them) to read and be conversant,” she said.
The studio occupies a long-vacant space in the strip mall, roughly in the middle of the unincorporated community of Nikiski. Fritsche and her husband Steven Fritsche leased and remodeled the space, which formerly housed a bank, to suit their needs, including a space in the back with a kitchen and table area intended for kids to be able to use for studying and hanging out after school. Fritsche said that was a key component in choosing the location — within walking distance of Nikiski Middle-High School, she wanted a safe space for kids to be able to come, take classes and do homework after school.
The initial plan is for it to be just a space after classes for kids to do their homework and hang out, she said.
“I’m just going to see how it goes,” she said. “I may provide them more structure if they need it.”
Building up a small student base didn’t take long, she said. Some people passed the word around about the studio, they hung out a sign on the highway and attended the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area’s Fun in the Midnight Sun festival and were on the radio a few times. Many of the students have walked into the studio to check it out, she said.
She said she’s also gotten support from Master Bud Draper at Soldotna Martial Arts where she takes classes in Tang Soo Do, another form of martial arts. Having another studio in Nikiski will provide a place for students who can’t or don’t want to drive all the way to Soldotna Martial Arts on Kalifornsky Beach Road for classes, and Fritsche said the two studios will recommend students to one another.
The classes are open to anyone at least 10 years old. Right now, the studio is operating on a summer schedule, but will switch over effective Aug. 21 to better accommodate the school schedule. Those who want to try it out without committing can also come for a free trial week, she said.
In addition to the taekwondo classes, Fritsche also teaches kickboxing classes, which incorporate martial arts. It’s a good cardio workout, and one of the advantages to having a small studio is Fritsche can adjust the classes to what the students are looking for, she said. For instance, if one group of students wants a harder workout than another, she can adjust that and add different curricula, she said.
“I tell the students when they come in, ‘What are you looking for?’” she said.
Her own journey with martial arts began through her daughter’s taking taekwondo classes and a desire to get physically active. Over time, she kept up with it and worked her way up to a third-degree black belt in the practice.
“(I tell people) becoming a black belt isn’t anything magical,” she said. “…You just have to be determined.”