Born - 1938 ; Location - Portland, Oregon, USA ; Sports - Karate, Snowboarding, Skiing
Tom "Shakey" Levak
As an opening line to an email that we received, "Hi, I'm Tom Levak, I'm 74, I ski and I snowboard, I can ride switch, in deep powder, on the steeps, and in the pipe. Also, I do karate" was too good to ignore - so we didn't. Here's his story.
Who are you, how old are you, what are your sports?
I'm Tom Levak, 74, I ski and I snowboard. I can ride switch, in deep powder, on the steeps, and in the pipe. Also, I do karate.
We've read your entry in the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, and when you say "Also, I do karate" there's quite a bit more to it than that. Tell us about it.
I started taking karate in 1964 when I began practicing law in Portland Oregon.
At that time the only school in town was the Oregon Karate Association, owned by Bruce Terrill. The style was Korean Kong Su brought to Portland in about 1958 by a Korean medical student named Wu. He taught Terrill Korean karate - now known mostly as taekwondo - which is really just Japanese Shotokan karate, and which the Japanese learned from the Okinawans. Kong Su was not a very good fighting system, and there weren't really any tournaments at that time in the North West (of the USA).
I was playing a lot of basketball as well as getting a law practice going, so after a couple of years I dropped out of karate and didn't start back till 1971. In the meantime, sport karate had really developed, with guys like Chuck Norris and others. By then, Terrill had modified his system to something he called Wu Ying Mun, a Bruce Lee type fighting and tournament system. When I started back, there were many NW tournaments happening. I fell in love with the system, probably because I was a natural fighter, and all the basketball had really given me good karate footwork. I progressed rapidly to black belt and won a lot of tournaments.
Many years later you're still fighting. How did you, and do you, manage to keep the enthusiasm for the sport, which must involve lots of training work, for so long?
I remained very enthusiastic about karate until late-1979. In 1978 I quit practicing law and became a full-time karate arbitrator. There were no over-35 divisions at that time and I was already 40, so it was getting tough fighting the younger guys and keeping my focus.
(NB. Levak "retired" and quit fighting in 1980, and restarted in 1987)
In 1980 or 81 I, together with my instructor, Dan Anderson, put on the largest karate tournament ever held in the NW, the Portland Oregon Pro-Am National Championships.
In 1987 USA Karate (US Olympic Committee Karate, now usankf.org) started age group karate. I started training again and won the Nationals every year except one over the next 18 years. I also won a whole bunch of other tournaments.
(NB The "whole bunch of other tournaments" included two AAU National Championships, and approximately 15 international and world championships.)
Nowadays, as well as competing, I like to occasionally teach sparring in the karate class at the Multnomah Athletic Club. I also like to teach street defence. I've taken a lot of classes from many instructors in self defence and I like to pass on what I've learned.
Have you noticed any difference physically in the last 10 or 15 years? How have you dealt with it? Has it affected your mental attitude to the sport?
I didn't have any physical problems until 2003 when I had prostate cancer surgery followed by radiation. I still have the cancer somewhere in my body so every year for about 3 months I have to have Lupron shots, which take away all of the testosterone in my body. When my PSA goes back to zero, I get off the shots for about 9 months. It's very hard to train hard without testosterone (plus, the hot flashes are a bitch). It's much harder now to keep focused. And while my explosiveness has pretty much remained, I get tired faster and my reflexes have slowed down.
What did you do when you had your "premature retirement"?
Triathlons started up in 1981, and I found a new love. I had been a high school and college swimmer (Well, only a year in college). Over the next 7 years I did about 30 triathlons, the Portland Marathon and the Seattle to Portland bike ride (the STP). But I still did one or two karate tournaments a year without training for them and won more than I lost.
Do you still train? What sort of training, and how often?
I've worked out with weights since I was 14 and, like I said played a lot of basketball, so I was always in shape. I have never had to train too much in karate sparring before tournaments except for a couple of weeks to get my timing back. Hard skiing and snowboarding 2 to 3 days a week through the winter keeps my legs and aerobic/anaerobic capacities in real good shape. And of course I keep up the weight training. I also throw in some 1,500 meter pool swims about once a week.
Is diet important, for instance for control of bodyweight, building muscle, maintaining high energy level?
Diet is very important, as is weight training. My weight, at about 197, literally never varies. Except for - and this is disgusting, a little - sagging skin and wrinkles, my body looks a lot like it did when I was younger.
When did you start snow sports? Which came first, skiing or snowboarding? Preference?
I skied for the first time in 1967. I was not a natural, but over the next 20 years I probably took a hundred formal and informal lessons and became pretty darn good.
I didn't start snowboarding until 11 years ago. I've worked real hard at it and I like it a lot (And I get to wear the funny, baggy clothes).
How, if at all, does karate benefit your life outside the sport, i.e. discipline, focus and concentration?
There's nothing mystical about karate. The Okinawans, who developed pure fighting karate, taught no spiritual or religious values - just fighting. That was Bruce Lee's approach, as well as the approach of the great Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters (the famous Gracie family). Karate is just a sport like any other. Karate doesn't build concentration or focus any better than any other sport. The idea that karate does is basically just a sales pitch for karate studios. That's not to say that some schools do not teach values; they virtually all teach obedience, discipline, etc, but so do football and basketball coaches.
How do you see things progressing in the future as far as your participation goes?
I think I told you that I fought in one tournament last year and came in second in the 45+ division. This year I plan on fighting in several tournaments, the first two next month. I'm not sure why, I'm just sort of pumped up again to fight. And it will be fun, too, seeing if I can beat a few guys who are about 30 years younger than me. (It's fun being me. LOL.)
That's it. No more questions, but add anything else you'd like to say on the subject.
Most karate students fight in very few tournaments. It's not as much fun coming third in a karate tournament as it is, say, in swimming or track - the losers get beat up a little ... or a lot.