One-On-One With SYS Sensei Helene Ely

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Some would say that Helene Ely has helped Southampton Youth Services become a prime spot for athletes across the East End. Just a year after SYS opened in 2004, Ely started up the facility’s karate camp, which completed its 10th year last week.

Ely, 48, came to the United States from her native Austria when she was 22 years old. She settled on the East End in East Quogue and has since raised her son, Richard, who is now 25 years old. She said it was because of her son that she got into karate: Richard Ely started taking karate classes up-island when he was 4 years old, and, wanting to learn self-defense for herself, Helene decided to join the class. Since then, she’s been practicing karate for 21 years. Before reaching SYS, Sensei Ely began a karate class at Sportime in Quogue, 17 years ago.

Sensei Ely received her 4th degree black belt two years ago and has recently joined forces with Japan Karate Association of the Hamptons, headed by chief instructor sensei Falah Kanani, a 6th Dan who is known worldwide.

Earlier this month, JKA Hamptons brought back a number of medals from the 2014 National Traditional Karate Championships, held under the patronage of the American Traditional Karate Federation in Dallas, Texas.

Last week, Sensei Ely sat down with The Press to talk about her commitment to the sport, how much she enjoys it and where she sees it heading.

Question: What do you love about karate?

Helene Ely: Immediately it was the structure, it’s very serious and focused. I did skiing, running, mountain climbing back in Austria, so this was both a physical and mental challenge for me. It’s also very relaxing for me.

It’s also nice that it has an individual progression to it, but that you’re also on a team and there’s good team spirit here. Over the years I have really enjoyed just helping people. We’ve had students as young as 3 years old to 70 in my class, and it’s great to watch them become more confident and become more involved in fitness. The changes are just right in front of your eyes.

Q: How did you end up at SYS?

HE: I was at the ground-breaking ceremony back when it first opened, and I always thought, ‘My God, this would be perfect to have a traditional karate school.’ So I met with [SYS Executive Director Scott Johnson], who suggested I start the summer program. The first program had 30 children, and it just took off from there. And in the same year I was hired by SYS as their bookkeeper, because of karate.

We also have satellite programs in Shelter Island and an after-school program at East Hampton High School called Project MOST, which we’ve been a part of the past eight years. And we have classes in Sag Harbor and the Flanders Community Center.

Q: What do you like the most about being sensei at SYS?

HE: I like teaching karate, teaching the art, because it’s an art as much as it is a sport. I love motivating people to have more confidence in themselves. We work with a lot of children, and karate always goes back to manners, controlling yourself and being polite. So I really enjoy just using karate, having it as a tool and helping people become better citizens.

Q: What does SYS bring to the table that maybe another dojo wouldn’t or couldn’t?

HE: Well, first of all, we practice traditional karate, so if you go from our classes in Southampton to another in Japan, you’ll have exactly the same curriculum. Really, if you go anywhere in the world, to South America, wherever, whoever practices traditional karate, it’ll be the same. Other dojos now offer really mixed martial arts. Ours is very, very strict. We just had an international camp on Shelter Island, where people from all over the world, even Japan, came, and we had all learned from the same curriculum.

An important aspect is that we’re volunteering our time but we keep going to these national events—like we’re going to Egypt with some of the students from Southampton to the 17th World Championships in November. We won a national title in fighting last weekend in Dallas. Our kids are phenomenal to place in those tournaments. If you make one mistake, you can get disqualified, so it’s a huge accomplishment for our kids to compete there.

Q: Who has been influential to you?

HE: My instructor, Falah Kanani, just moved to Southampton from San Diego. He had been commuting back and forth the past two years. He is a real gem in the marital arts community, having trained for 30 years. He’s a 6th degree black belt sensei international instructor, international judge and examiner, and is a world champion medalist, boosting our status and training—and the kids love him.

Q: What is your teaching philosophy, and what are your goals when teaching a group of children and/or adults?

HE: We’re all about character building, etiquette, confidence, being a Good Samaritan. Other dojos, which are considered generic, claim those values but don’t really promote them and are into it for the business. Our organization [JKA] is approved and recommended by the Japanese ministry of education—it’s a daily curriculum in Japan. It’s very, very traditional. It’s not a hodgepodge of martial arts.

Q: What are the benefits of practicing karate?

HE: Self-defense, being organized, self-respect and respecting others with a positive attitude.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about karate?

HE: The film industry, like television and movies, unfortunately, give a different picture. They show fancy, unrealistic moves using special effects, which is all for the fun. When people come down, they discover a completely different aspect. There is no goofy stuff, no jumping around like in the movies.

Karate is simple, but it could be difficult. Anybody can kick, punch and slap, but the preciseness of the technique and mastery of technique is really what karate is all about. Otherwise, anyone can claim mastery of martial arts.

Q: What are your future goals and hopes for the dojo?

HE: We want to motivate children and adults to become instructors, promote a peaceful way of life, and to spark interest in future generations. You can’t learn [karate] from TV, can’t learn it from the internet—it is a craft. And, of course, it’s only in self-defense, a last resort, to use your karate.

For more information on Southampton Youth Services and the karate camp, go to www.sysinc.org and click on “camps.” More information on JKA of the Hamptons can be found at www.nystki.com.

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