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Two Kansas karate athletes qualify for Team USA

Rodrigo Madrid (left) and Mason Stowell (right) both qualified for Team USA and will compete in the junior Pan American Games in August.

Rodrigo Madrid (left) and Mason Stowell (right) both qualified for Team USA and will compete in the junior Pan American Games in August.

AmeriKick Overland Park

Mason Stowell went to his first World Karate Federation competition in Shanghai in 2018 as one of the best juniors in the discipline of kata. But competing among grown men, the Kansas City athlete quickly realized he wasn’t where he needed to be.

“That tournament was the turning point where I realized I really needed to up my training because I was competing with guys that have been competing for 30 years,” Stowell said. “And I was 16 years old.”

Stowell, who trains at martial arts school AmeriKick in Overland Park, and his coach Jarrett Leiker changed his training immediately after that tournament: putting on 20 pounds the next year with an emphasis on strength training.

Almost exactly a year after competing in Shanghai, Stowell went to Chile and took down Mattia Busato, an Italian athlete ranked No. 5 in the world.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way I just beat that guy,’” Stowell said. “That was kind of the point where I realized, ‘Okay, I might have something here,’ and that the work had really paid off in the past year.”

Stowell has only kept climbing up the ranks since, currently sitting at No. 14 in the WKF rankings. So when the 19-year-old went to compete in the 21 and under division at the USA National Karate Championships at the start of July, Stowell dominated, beating everybody by at least 1.5 points on the 10-point kata scale.

“I have spent the last three years competing only against adults,” Leiker said. “He’s never really competed much against people of his own age. So now, it’s his first youth event since he was 15. ”

Stowell and fellow AmeriKick athlete Rodrigo Madrid both qualified for the USA’s national karate team and will compete at the Panamerican Karate Federation Championships in August in Mexico City. Two years younger than Stowell, Madrid is currently ranked No. 11 in the world as a junior.

The two have trained alongside each other for years, testing for their black belts together, and even trained over Zoom before Stowell moved from Denver.

“I remember the first time I met (Mason)… he called me by my wrong name when he was cheering me on. So that’s my first memory of him, but after that, we became good friends,” Madrid said. “We were always the ones who would train together, work together and practice outside of just on the mat.”

Madrid has been training with Leiker at the AmeriKick since he was eight years old. He said he started because he liked Karate Kid. Stowell started in Taekwondo when he was five years old. Both described themselves as shy kids who grew confidence through martial arts.

Madrid was also learning English as a second language. He was really, really quiet, Leiker said, but even as an eight-year-old, Madrid had a “laser-like focus.”

“The main thing for (Madrid) that separates him is the mindset and discipline – I’ve never seen anyone like it,” Leiker said. “Mason has freakish skills and athletic ability – the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent. Rodrigo has great athletic ability and skills, no question, but his mindset is that great.

“So they each have a balance for each other, kind of like yin and yang. That’s why they’re great training partners together.”

Madrid is following a similar path to Stowell in kata: if the 17-year-old manages to reach the top 32 overall in the world to compete in the WKF’s Premier League alongside his training partner, AmeriKick Overland Park would be the only dojo in America to have two athletes in the Premier League.

He got his start competing in international tournaments later than Stowell. Madrid just wasn’t competing enough, Leiker said, but after some local businesses helped sponsor Madrid’s travel from him, he medaled in his first overseas tournament in Turkey. In his next tournament, he won gold.

Travel is an integral part of competing in karate – Stowell, who is sponsored by equipment company Shureido – the Nike of karate, has traveled to every continent except Antarctica to compete. Leiker and Stowell have a tradition everywhere they travel: they try ramen.

The next stops for Stowell, Madrid and Leiker include a tune-up tournament, AmeriKick Internationals, in Atlantic City then the Pan American Games on Aug. 25-27 in Mexico directly afterwards.

Right now, Stowell and Madrid are putting in grueling days of training in Overland Park to get ready for the competitions – training two-to-three hours a day on top of strength training.

The laser-like focus shows, while practicing katas – Stowell described the sport as an imaginary fight — there’s an almost-surgical level of precision to every movement. Stowell and Madrid will practice the same kata over and over again under Leiker’s watchful guidance, and the intense practice has paid off so far for two.

“We put in so much effort into every single training session and into every single rep,” Stowell said. “I remember there were training sessions where we would literally not be able to finish a kata – like we were falling over, legs were cramping.”

“It was so worth it just to get that gold medal (at the USA Karate National Championships). In a way, I almost anticipated it. There’s no way I’m training this hard, and I’m not going to go all the way. So I went hard, and it paid off.”

This story was originally published July 21, 2022 5:11 PM.

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