Fonsecas seek to share their love of karate
Fonseca Martial Arts co-owner Elisa Fonseca (right) demonstrates a kick with her husband John Fonseca at the dojo on Monday in Evanston. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 11, 2012 12:40PM
EVANSTON — Married in 2008, John and Elisa Fonseca are something like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the karate world: accomplished, attractive, entrepreneurial and now, parents.
John was the first male karate athlete ever to win back-to-back gold medals at the Pan-American Games, a multi-sport event with athletes from North and South America. He accomplished the feat at the 1999 and 2003 competitions.
The thing is, he’s not even the most accomplished athlete in his family.
“I’m a bag boy compared to Elisa,” John says.
Elisa’s gold medal in the 2002 World Championships, karate’s most prestigious event, was the United States’ first-ever for a female. Two years later, she won two gold medals at the 2004 World Championships, becoming the first athlete to ever do so. She is the most accomplished female athlete in U.S. karate history.
If the 700-year-old sport of karate is floundering — karate didn’t receive enough votes to be an event in the 2016 Seoul Olympics and Tae Kwon Do facilities now outnumber karate facilities, according to John — the Fonsecas haven’t noticed.
Today, John, 36, and Elisa, 31, own and operate Fonseca Martial Arts, which includes three dojos (Evanston, Wilmette and Lakeview), with classes taught at an additional 10 schools, one park district and one YMCA. Retired from competition and living in Evanston, John and Elisa estimate they reach more than 600 students with plans for continued expansion.
Maybe the Fonsecas haven’t noticed karate’s struggles for another reason altogether — their first child was born December 2011. Ava takes after Elisa — lightly tanned skin, thin black hair. But she most certainly has her father’s blue eyes.
Beyond their family, John and Elisa’s Fonseca Cup is growing, too. The tournament, which is in its second year, takes place Saturday and Sunday at Evanston High School. It is scheduled to attract some of the top karate competitors in the world, with an expected 400-500 participants and $9,000 in prize money — up $8,000 from last year.
“The first year was nothing short of phenomenal,” Jake Lease said about the size and level of competition. Lease is the CEO of the United States National Karate-do Federation, the governing body for the sport in the country.
The competitors who will descend upon this Midwestern suburb for two days of competition will be following a path much similar to John and Elisa’s.
A history of excellence
It would’ve been nearly impossible for John and Elisa to grow up any farther apart in the U.S.
John was born in Plainview, N.Y., and lived in North Babylon, Long Island — some 5,000 miles away from Elisa in Honolulu.
John began karate at 6, and started competing nationally at 7. Once a quiet child, John says the sport gave him much-needed confidence.
At 10, he moved to Northbrook and by 15, in between attending classes at Glenbrook North, he was traveling to places like Budapest, Hungary, to compete.
John became very familiar with winning: He has 12 USA National Karate Federation championships and three U.S. Olympic Athlete of the Year awards in addition to his Pan-Am gold medals and dozens of others.
On the other side of the country, 5-year-old Elisa took up the sport at a dojo across the street from her house.
It just so happened that that dojo, the International Karate Federation, is the most accomplished in the United States and among the best in the world. George Kotaka, who trained with Elisa at the IKF, is the most accomplished male karate athlete in U.S. history, winning gold twice at the World Championships.
Her Sensei, or teacher, Chuzo Kotaka (George’s father), was a world-class competitor and gold medalist in Japan’s tournament in 1962 at a time when that country dominated the sport. Americans didn’t practice karate, which originated in Okinawa, Japan, in the 1300s, until World War II veterans returned home after fighting in the Pacific.
Under Sensei Kotaka, Elisa specialized in the counter punch and lead-hand punch.
“His experience in knowing how to be a champion and how to be the best set the standard,” Elisa said.
Where John was a well-rounded fighter, Elisa went on to win the World Championships, and dozens of other national and international competitions, relying on just a few, specialized moves.
The right match
Like all elite athletes, success came at a cost.
Elisa skipped social functions to train. When her friends left for the continental United States to attend college, Elisa chose the University of Hawaii in her hometown so she could continue training at the renowned dojo.
Many miles away, John’s life was much the same — his family planned vacations around his national tournaments; he transferred from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., to Loyola University in order to continue training at his dojo; he even wrote a term paper in Malaysia during a competition and faxed it to a professor.
Things were made more difficult because karate is not mainstream.
Unlike competitors in major sports, John and Elisa often didn’t receive funding for travel and others didn’t understand that karate was as much of a commitment as collegiate football.
“I think it’s great that we shared karate,” Elisa says. “There was a lot of sacrifice. For us to understand that and share that makes us really compatible.”
Elisa was 18 and John was 23 when they met as members on the national United States team. Karate took them all over the world — South Africa, Mexico, Spain, Germany and more. They watched each other compete; saw each other’s highs and lows.
A combination of age difference and nerves limited the relationship to friendship for six years.
Romantic feelings eventually surfaced at a friend’s wedding in the summer of 2005. Things moved quickly from there. Elisa, who always knew she’d leave Hawaii, moved to Chicago months later. In May 2007, John proposed, and the following February, they got married in Hawaii.
The Fonseca Cup
Since January, the two have been preparing for the second Fonseca Cup: arranging seminars for referees, coordinating flights and hotels for the international athletes, acquiring mats, medals, T-shirts, posters, and sponsors. All of which, they said, could not be accomplished without generous support from the karate community.
On Sunday as the Fonsecas took a brief respite to go with Ava and other family members to a pumpkin patch in Long Grove, the global karate community participated in “K Day.”
The World Karate Federation, the governing body for the sport worldwide, used Sunday to demonstrate karate’s solidarity. In the spring, the International Olympic Committee will vote to determine if the sport will be included in the 2020 Olympics.
“2013 is going to be a big year for us”, Lease said. “One of the biggest things the sport needs to show is universality.”
As the sport fights for more popularity, it’s also dealing with other issues like commercialization. “McDojo’s”, as they are known within the industry, are institutions notorious for handing out belts as quick as fries to-go.
At a McDojo it might take a year to get a black belt, at Fonseca Martial Arts it takes four to six.
John says: “They’re not instilling a good life lesson: that you have to put everything of yourself into something, that you seek perfection but never obtain it. You realize that through years of training.”
No matter how the sport evolves, the Fonseca’s core values of respect and thoughtfulness remain.
“We would like nothing more than our students to have good character,” Elisa says.
One question remains: Will their own daughter be a student? Could she shepherd karate into the limelight? Perhaps. But she’ll have to choose that for herself.
“We’re going to support whatever passion she discovers,” John said.
Elisa couldn’t agree more, adding, however, that whatever Ava does choose, she won’t be allowed to quit.