For Eric Marcal, competing in the martial arts is his passion. For the 15-year-old, however, taking part in a tournament is like fighting with one hand tied behind his back. That’s because he was born with only one hand.
Still, what many might perceive as a disability has never slowed him down. Marcal, of East Meadow, who studies martial arts at Shunato Karate and Fitness Center in Baldwin, competed at the 17th annual World Organization of Martial Arts Athletes Games in Dublin, Ireland, July 21 - 23, and came away with two silver medals in Traditional Open Weapons, two gold medals in Japanese Traditional Forms and Self-Defense, and the Grand Championship for Self-Defense.
Marcal has studied martial arts for 11 years, since he was 4. When he was younger, he had trouble balancing and took karate lessons to improve his coordination and reflexes, and he instantly fell in love with martial arts.
“At times it can be hard, but it’s mostly fun,” Marcal said. “I like the camaraderie you can get from martial arts in general. You know we’re all a big family here.”
Marcal joined Shunato Karate in August 2015 as a brown belt and rose to black belt last December after completing a grueling, five-hour skills test. The dojo, which in Japanese means martial arts studio, is owned and operated by Baldwinites Kato and Tina Peragine, both of whom are members of the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
Marcal is a member of Shunato’s tryout-based tournament team, the Strike Team. During a competition last fall, Marcal was scouted by sensei Amanda Guschel, a Team America coach who was judging the competition. (Sensei is Japanese for martial arts teacher.) Guschel invited him to join Team America at the WOMAA Games, and he accepted immediately.
To prepare for the tournament, Marcal trained at Shunato Karate, under Kato Peragine, five days a week and took additional lessons from him to focus on traditional forms of Japanese martial arts.
He also took weekly private lessons from Shunato sensei Jonathan Abrams in weapons use, and attended several Team America practices with Guschel and took once-a-week private lessons with her focusing on weapons and self-defense.
“It was a lot of fun. It was really cool meeting so many people from so many countries,” Marcal said of the games, adding that “it’s nice to be back and training again.” It hasn’t yet sunk in, he said, that he took part in an international tournament — and came away victorious.
“It was very exciting,” said Alisa Marcal, Eric’s mother. “Just the whole experience of going to a foreign country and competing in an international tournament is something that he’d never done before.”
Before he left for Ireland, his parents counseled him to do his best, have fun and enjoy the experience. Any awards that he might win would be a bonus.
For Peragine, accolades are a nice perk, but not the main focus of what karate is all about. “Karate is changing lives. It’s a life skill. It’s not just about punching or kicking,” he said. “It’s really about changing lives in a positive way for the community.”
“When you’re outside in the real world, you never get to pick who’s going to bully you,” Peragine added. “Usually it’s people larger than you. Karate was designed to fight with technique and aggression so that you can control a larger opponent.” That’s why he trains different age groups together, enabling students to understand their abilities and limitations in a safe environment.
Competing with one hand has never stopped Marcal. “I had to work a lot harder. It was more motivation than anything else,” he said.
Opponents tend to underestimate him, he said, “until they see me go up and compete. Then they realize that I’m just like everybody else.”
“I don’t want to be known as the one-handed martial artist,” Marcal said. “I want to be known as the martial artist that just happens to be one-handed.”