Deaf Maspeth teen earns karate black belt

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Kimberly Esparza can throw a mean punch.

With her straight locks of dirty blonde hair pulled back in a neat pony tail, she takes to the mat at Tiger Schulmann’s Karate in Rego Park with a look of shy but determined aggression, flipping her arm and pushing her leg to bring down an opponent twice her size. She emits a brief high-pitched grunt as she releases him to the ground, then stands proudly over him with a look of subdued triumph.

A thick black belt is tied around her waist with her last name, “Esparza,” printed prominently in gold letters, an award the 16-year-old Maspeth resident earned last month.

“She’ll bring you down,” said her mother, Georgina Esparza-Antu.

“Hard,” adds her teacher, Sensei Vincent Gravina.

Using her body to communicate is nothing new to Kimberly, who is deaf and speaks with her hands using American sign language.

But earning her black belt was an accomplishment even she could not have foreseen when she began studying karate more than two years — and 584 classes — ago.

“I wanted to be able to defend myself, but I never thought I would be able to get my black belt,” Kimberly signed as her mother translated for her during a recent interview in the studio.

Kimberly had asked her mother to sign her up for lessons after seeing the Queens Boulevard karate studio every day on her bus ride to the Lexington School for the Deaf in Jackson Heights.

“I saw other people doing it and I thought that I just wanted to learn to defend myself — to protect my body and be safe against people,” she said.

Her mother had doubts, but she promised to call for an appointment as soon as Kimberly gave her the phone number, which she soon got from a friend who lives by the studio.

“I said, well, I want to help my daughter, I want to make sure that this is something she wants to do,” Esparza-Antu said. “I had in the back of my head she’s not going to last a month.”

That was more than two years ago.

Kimberly’s deafness was acquired at birth due to delivery complications that cut off the supply of oxygen to her brain. Although she was born in California, her mother began raising her in her native Mexico, where doctors identified her as hearing impaired shortly before her first birthday.

“It was very dramatic for me, because being a single mom and then having a child with a disability or a limitation — it was very hard,” Esparza-Antu said.

When Kimberly was 3 years old, they moved back to the United States, where both mother and daughter began learning sign language — Kimberly at a daytime clinic for the deaf, her mother in a nighttime college program.

For Esparza-Antu, there could be no other way. After years of communicating with her daughter by pointing and making up signs, she had to find a better method. Since Kimberly could not learn to speak, she learned to sign.

“That’s how we started communicat­ing,” she said. “I loved to see my daughter smile and have a beautiful shine on her face knowing she was understanding me finally after years of trying to communicate. We needed that.”

That bond is what brought them to New York, where they moved so Esparza-Antu could take a job as a sign-language interpreter for the legal department of the Mexican Consulate. It also landed them both in the karate studio.

When Kimberly started taking karate lessons, her mother stood by her side to interpret instructions for her. She was spending so much time in the studio with her daughter that she eventually began working there full time, earning her own brown belt along the way.

Kimberly’s inability to hear also impairs her sense of balance, making certain tasks in karate, such as a forward roll or keeping her leg raised, far more difficult than they would be for a hearing person.

“At the beginning, I felt dizzy,” Kimberly said of her attempts to do a forward roll. “But later I did fine. I learned it.”

While she was testing for her black belt in New Jersey last month, Kimberly had the support of family and friends who punched and kicked in the background to offer encouragement, which they did in lieu of screaming for her, during five rounds of two-minute sparring matches.

“When I was fighting, I was tired but I didn’t stop. I kept going,” Kimberly said. “I kept beating her. Everybody kept telling me beat her, beat her, punch her.”

Kimberly will soon move to Texas with her mother and stepfather, thus ending her chapter of karate training in Queens but opening up a whole new range of possibilities. Not one to rest with simply a black belt, she plans to continue studying karate and adding other challenges like gymnastics and dance to improve her flexibility.

“I really wanted to be a strong deaf person. I didn’t want hearing people to think I was weak,” she said. “Now when I’m outside I feel more confident. I can walk more confidently when I’m in the street.”

Her teacher, Sensei Gravina can see the difference.

“When she first came she was so shy,” he said. “She’s like a flower that bloomed.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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