Crystal Lake woman in wheelchair earning her black belt

Crystal Lake woman earning a black belt, wheelchair or not

Tired of being defined by her wheelchair and labeled a “special needs” athlete, Kelly Schultz will try for her black belt in karate in the able-bodied division.

For 12 years, she doubted her own abilities because of people's perceptions about her physical condition.

But no more.

The 33-year-old Schultz of Crystal Lake is the only wheelchair-bound athlete testing Saturday for her black belt at Focus Martial Arts and Fitness in Lake in the Hills - her dream since she was 11.

“Nothing here is about anything I can't do,” Schultz said. “There's stuff that I never thought I would do that I can do now. This has completely changed the way I think about myself ... about what I can and can't do.”

Schultz has spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spine that often causes mild to severe physical and intellectual problems. Though she could walk with hand crutches when she was younger, Schultz has been using a wheelchair more regularly since high school. It's only within the past year she has felt any movement in her legs through her training and physical therapy.

In her day job, she teaches employment skills to teenagers at the Lake County Center for Independent Living, and she also mentors special needs children as a volunteer with the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association.

The latter is her way of giving back, serving as an example and helping empower others like herself, she said.

Despite the strides she's made with her karate and conditioning, Schultz acknowledges she still feels self-conscious and limited by her condition outside the fitness center.

In fact, how others perceived and reacted to her physical disability affected her confidence, which led to a 12-year hiatus in her training during her high school and college years.

Today, though, she's a different person when training.

“When I bow, I tell myself, 'Own it,'” she said. “It changes you.”

Sensei's inspiration

The words of her sensei, martial arts teacher Jim O'Hara, urging her to see the wheelchair as an ally and not the enemy ultimately persuaded her to start training again four years ago.

  Despite being in a wheelchair due to spina bifida, Kelly Schultz is working toward her black belt in karate at Focus Martial Arts and Fitness in Lake in the Hills. John Starks/

“If you want something you've never had, you have to do something you've never done,” she said, quoting O'Hara - what she calls a “sensei-ism.”

The physical activity she's engaged in has an unexpected side benefit: For the first time in her life, Schultz is starting to feel sensation in her feet - something she could not have imagined a few years ago.

O'Hara says her progress is an inspiration.

“How much she has accomplished in the years that she has been here, just from a mental aspect ... it's pretty motivating, actually,” he said. “She is in a regular, able-bodied fitness class. She is training and working out, doing pushups, doing core work. ... She's learned to find the muscles. She will try anything now.”

All she can do

Though her movement is restricted, Schultz is able to block and throw punches and even spins around in her wheelchair to deliver blows. Her ability to spar with opponents not in wheelchairs is limited, but she adjusts the angles of her blows accordingly. The training has forced her to use muscles she had never used before.

“My kicks used to be like, pick my knee up, and now I can do a full kick,” she said. “I've had to make karate my own from the time I started.”

  Kelly Schultz, 33, of Crystal Lake, lines up with other students during her karate lesson. John Starks/

Schultz's teachers also have had to adapt and develop training specific to her needs. O'Hara often uses an exercise ball to put himself in her shoes and work out the moves.

“We've literally over the years had to re-evaluate and restructure how we teach her karate,” O'Hara said. “We put her in twice in a special needs division and she didn't want to do that again.”

Schultz refused the medal she earned in the special needs division and has been competing in the able-bodied division for several years now.

“It was interesting to see the dynamics,” O'Hara said. “It was not just her put out of her comfort zone; it was the referees and everybody in that division. You have to judge them based on what they are capable of doing given the nature of their disability. As humans, we judge people based on what we see and not what they can do.”

  AT DAILYHERALD.COM/MORE: "I set a goal that I want to walk again. Karate made me believe in myself again" - Kelly Schultz on figuring out what she can do. John Starks/

Instead of doing kicks like other students, Schultz is required only to lift her knee, which still takes a lot of effort.

“It takes an incredible amount of strength and mental fortitude,” O'Hara said.

Schultz passed her black belt pretest last Saturday, which means she knows all the forms on which she will be tested.

She credits karate for giving her the ability to look beyond her circumstances. “I want to walk again,” she said. “I look at it as I'm not getting a black belt in karate. ... I'm getting a black belt in life.”

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