It’s not every day you meet a 10-year-old who frequents words like “perseverance” and “self-control” in their vocabulary. But if you catch Sammy Gillespie talking about karate, the sport he is currently dominating, you just might find one.
He is currently celebrating his new title as a karate national champion, and preparing to take on karate masters from 27 different countries at the World Karate Competition in Orlando this fall.
I sat down with Sammy and his family at their New Tampa home, where I got some background on Sammy’s career (he’s been doing it since he was four), and learned why karate is so much more than an after-school activity for him.
When Sammy competes, he focuses on demonstrating intensity and power. But for him, karate is more than the moves on the mat.
“I like it because it teaches you discipline, self-control, a lot of other stuff like that,” Sammy said.
Sammy decided to give karate a shot after watching his older sister, Yasmine Gillespie, who is also a black belt, climb up the belt rank. By age seven, he was competing in tournaments, and quickly rose to first-degree black belt by nine.
Sammy’s coach, Sensei John Augello, runs Core Martial Arts in Tampa, where Sammy takes both private and group lessons. He told me Sammy’s ascent in karate was a situation of mind over matter.
"The first thing I had to do with Sammy was really strengthen him from the inside out so he could really prepare his mind and body for okay, this is what we're going to have to do to get to that level,” Augello said. “And are we willing to put that kind of work in?"
Sammy’s mom, Aisha Gillespie, calls Sensei John a blessing. She told me his impact has reached far beyond the karate mat.
"Since Sammy has been in his school, Sammy's just shined,” she said. “And his personality took actually to the next level."
She's thrilled with Sammy's success, but is more concerned with Sammy's happiness than a gold medal around his neck.
"For us, it doesn't matter, either he wins or he loses, we're happy,” she said. “And next time he'll do better. As long as we're together and he's enjoying it, that's all that matters."
When Sammy talks about karate, he is serious, composed. But he admits that when he thinks about the upcoming world competition, he gets butterflies in his stomach.
"I'm like, okay, so I'm representing my country, I have to be really good," Sammy told me with an anticipatory grin on his face.
Come November, Sammy, who weighs in at 80 pounds, will face opponents up to seven years his senior in some events. But he doesn't dwell on this detail.
"I just do what I love, I don't get down from anybody," Sammy said.
Sensei John told me that this perseverance is the most important things he teaches.
"When someone hands something to you, it's taken for granted, but when you gotta scratch your way up from the bottom, when everything you do has to be worked for--exponentially worked for---just to reach that next level,” Augello said, “I think what you take away from it is it's part of your life now, you can always look back on it and say, well I handled that, I was successful with that, I can handle this new challenge."
With that in mind, Sammy told me his advice to all the other karate kids out there who dream big like he does.
"Just keep on trying, just never get discouraged,” Sammy advised. “Just keep practicing. Trying to get better, trying to persevere.”
Sammy hopes that one day, this perseverance will get him to the Olympics. Regardless, he already has a myriad of trophies, plus a number of life’s most important lessons tucked away in his heart and mind.