By Kevin McClintock
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
At the age of 4, Rye Capen could be seen out in the front yard, leaping here and there, slicing the air with a plastic Darth Maul light saber.
Fast forward eight years and this South Middle School student is now one of the world’s best in martial arts sword fighting for his age group, possessing a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do.
“From the time when he was young, with those Star Wars light sabers, he took to (the sword) pretty well, practiced a lot with it,” said Rye’s father, Rex, who is a seventh-degree black belt in tae kwon do as well as master instructor of Joplin’s Team Victory Martial Arts dojo. “Even then, swords were a real natural talent for him.”
Rye spends between six and nine hours a week practicing the precise movements, using sword, fists and feet.
“I just love it all,” Rye said after spending 15 minutes going through a number of precise motions, some of which looked like a mock fight between him and unseen enemies. When he was done, he was barely out of breath.
Aside from Rex, Team Victory Martial Arts has two other adult instructors -- Mason Friend and Rick Feller. Rye serves as the fourth.
“(Rye) is my best instructor, believe it or not,” Rex said. “He teaches even the adults. If I’m here and I break off someone that’s new and I need someone to go back and work with them, I’ll give it to Rye. Even adults.
“Sometimes I’ll have to say (to the new adult recruits), ‘I know what it looks like. I know how he sounds, OK, but give him a chance.’ And so far, I’ve never had anyone come up to me who didn’t feel comfortable with him. Every one of them says, ‘Holy cow, he’s amazing.’”
Last year, while the father-son duo competed on the national circuit in Los Angeles, Rye tied for first out of 24 competitors in the 10-11 age group.
“He tied for first with the guy who had won the world title the year before,” Rex said of his son.
During the last competition of the year, Diamonds in Minnesota, Rye finished fifth in the weapons category and 10th out of 30 in form.
“And that’s the 30 best in the world,” Rex said.
Rye will be competing in the 12-14 age group next year, Rex said, “and he plans on winning first in the world.”
Rye competed in his first tournament at the age of 4. He took first place. In fact, for three years in a row, he took first and was named grand champion in his age division.
Since 2003, Rye has placed No. 1 in forms and weapons every year in the Midwest Martial Arts Association Southern Conference tournament circuit, and placed in the top 10 in the world and national circuit for 2011.
“(His success) makes me a proud papa,” Rex said. “Absolutely. I’m very proud to watch him achieve what he’s done. I don’t know a father who wouldn’t be.”
Myriad martial arts
Rye is small for his age, as was his father, Rex said.
“I’m a small guy, small in stature, so I couldn’t play basketball, I couldn’t play hockey, and I didn’t know how to swim,” Rex said. “So judo was the only thing there that I could do. Martial arts is one of the few things where height doesn’t matter at all.”
Rex, who works full-time with the Joplin Police Department, has belted in a number of martial arts disciplines, including judo, kempo, shodok, aikido and, when he moved to central Missouri in the 1990s, tae kwon do.
While kempo is his favorite of the martial arts, he’s achieved a higher black belt in tae kwon do than any of the other karate disciplines he’s practiced, which also includes kung fu, ninjutsu and American kickboxing -- the latter he learned while living in Arizona.
Rex has three main rules when it comes to the self-defense moves he and his instructors teach others. The first is to avoid the situation. The second is to be diplomatic and try to talk your way out of a sticky situation.
However, if such matters can’t be avoided, the third rule is simple -- “if we have to use it,” Rex said, “use it to your full ability.”
That doesn’t mean massacre the opponent, Rex added, but it does mean the student will be the one ending the matter, not the aggressor.
“Just the other day, I had a student, she was being bullied on the bus,” said Rex. “She went through all the proper channels, told the bus driver and her parents, and it was still happening.”
When the boy pestered her again, rearing back his fist as if to hit her, “she blocked it, put him in a wrist lock, threw him to the ground and told him, ‘You do not want to mess with me.’”
Suffice to say, the bully left her alone. That girl, Rex said proudly, is 10 years old.
Rex toured the national circuit, competing against the top fighters in the world before he retired just prior to Rye’s birth. Though he’s retired several times over the years, he came out of retirement to compete in the senior age group at the same national tournaments his son now competes in.
It’s truly a family experience. Team Victory Martial Arts, Rex said, “is about family. Just like a real family, everyone (here) has a diverse personality and knowledge. We take all the strengths from each other and work to eliminate the weaknesses. We’re here to have fun. That’s what we do here -- we’re here to have fun in a huge family environment.”
Rex and Rye can be found at their martial arts center at 110 N. Range Line, Ste. 207. For more information, call 417-208-9005 or visit the center’s website at www.teamvictoryma.com.