The Art of the Deadly Crutch
by Connie Gulick
October 1983 Black Belt
Small in stature, 28-year-old Nancy Rowell-Stewart is a giant in spirit -- and martial arts ability. Four feet tall because of a rare bone disorder, and hampered by a weak hip joint, Nancy has reached the rank of second-degree black belt in the American Tae Kwon Do Federation and has every intention of continuing in the martial arts.
The bone disorder is metathyseal dysostosis -- a form of dwarfism that weakens the joints. She uses crutches to get around except when walking only a short distance. Training in tae kwon do has toned her muscles, made her ligaments stronger and less susceptible to joint dislocation, and most importantly, has increased her stamina so she can go farther on her crutches in a day than she could when she was younger.
Nancy performs the same stretching and strengthening exercises as the rest of her tae kwon do class, with only a little variation. Most of her stretches are right-sided, because of her weak left hip.
When sparring, she substitutes crutch techniques for kicks and blocks. The two kicks she does well with oner own feet are the front snap and the roundhouse, and by balancing on her crutches, she can thrust her kick to the face of a person six feet tall. "I have a deceptive reach because of my crutches," notes Nancy. "I use the front snap or roundhouse rarely in free sparring -- it leaves me too open and my hands are occupied with the crutches -- so I do what I call the side crutch (a lot like the side kick), the roundhouse crutch (her equivalent to a roundhouse kick), hooking crutch, spinning reverse crutch, and the tornado crutch to keep my opponents at bay."
She has kept away form sparring competition on a tournament level because of obvious disadvantages for both she and her opponents. "People in my school are used to free sparring wioth me," says the diminutive Iowan. "They have a healthy respect for the crutches." Since the crutches do not "feel," they don't hurt like the shins, toes, and elbows they can collide with.
Nancy has competed, however, in breaking competitions at tournaments. Her favorite breaking techniques are the back elbow, front snap kick, and hooking crutch. Because she competes in the women's black belt division, she must use the same large-size boards as the other contestants. "I'm not as consistent with the larger boards," Nancy admits, "and in practice I generally use the junior-sized boards. I prefer to do demonstrations because I like to emphasize the art aspect of the martial arts. But I do help at tournaments, keeping time or judging.
"Like other people, I reach plateaus where it feels like I'm not improving, but the frustration passes and I begin setting new goals. There are times I need to lay back and take it easy physically. During the cold Iowa winters I don't work out as often, usually just twice a week, and when it gets warm I increase my class attendance to four times a week. As martial artist, I am average, really. I think there are a lot of disabled people who could do better than I, but they don't realize the martial arts are a viable option for them."
As a counselor for the disabled in her daily work life, Nancy would like to see more handicapped people get involved in tae kwon do. At her school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there are several people who represent a variety of disabilities, including blindness, hearing impairment, and paraplegia. In fact, Nancy was originally introduced to the martial arts by a friend disabled with polio who encouraged her to attend the University of Iowa Tae Kwon Do Club.
The instructors of the tae kwon do club, John Becker and Rod Spidel, were aided in devising special techniques for Nancy by their teacher, Woo Jin Jung. Eventually, when she could, Nancy traveled to Cedar Rapids on weekends to learn directly from Jung.
Most of Nancy's progress in tae kwon do is attributable to Jung's willingness to develop crutch and other special techniques for her. "In a martial art with lots of tradition, it takes a very special instructor to be able to change part of that tradition to meet an individual's needs and abilities," Nancy asserts.
"Mr. Jung treats me equally with his other students. He never treats me as the exception. He pushes me to work to the best of my ability." Nancy found she was ready to test for her black belt when she could generate the same power and speed with her special techniques as the other students could with the traditional tae kwon do techniques.
"The teacher makes all the difference," she claims. "It's imperative that you talk to the teacher and go watch several classes. I would say the best way to know what a teacher is like is to watch him teaching children. Children take a lot of patience. If the children are disciplined but are enjoying themselves, the teacher will probably have the patience to work with anyone, including disabled people."
Most people who discover Nancy has black belt status don't quite believe it. "They choose to see me as being limited, rather than having abilities," she explains. "They probably think the belt was a gift from my instructor. But as Mr. Jung says, it takes buckets of sweat and tears to earn the black belt, and I have definitely given my share.
"Tae kwon do is an ongoing challenge. When I execute a front snap kick six feet in the air, there is no disability. I am free!"