Taking Karate to another level

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Louis Castelli Sr. (left) and Louis Castelli Jr. pose for a photo with Louis Castelli III at Shin Karate on Oregon Avenue in South Philly. Father and son both raised a level in blackbelt status on Dec. 11. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Louis Castelli Jr. remembers being in his dad’s karate dojo, barely able to walk, but beginning his journey.

“It was awesome. I started when I was 2½ years old running around here and watching my dad compete in tournaments,” said Castelli Jr. “And later he would be on the sideline as I competed and won trophies and regional titles.”

The years went by like a roundhouse kick for the South Philly family. And earlier this month, Castelli and his dad, Louis Castelli Sr., shared a special memory at the Shin Karate Dojo on Oregon Avenue. Castelli Jr. achieved his third-degree blackbelt while his father accepted his fifth-degree blackbelt in a ceremony in front of dignitaries and grandmasters from all over the country.

Castelli Sr., now 53, waited 18 years to rise from his fourth-degree blackbelt. 

“It’s been a long journey,” said Castelli Sr., who has trained in martial arts for 35 years. “My last test was 18 years ago. I’ve been a fourth-degree blackbelt since then so I’ve waited a long time. But I was more happy for them. Not only for my son, but my first black belt student achieved his master, finally.”

It was a day of celebration all around for the South Philly dojo that opened its doors in 1980. Head instructor John Trotta received his fourth-degree blackbelt to achieve master status. Longtime trainer Joe Mastrando elevated to fifth-degree blackbelt. 

Shin Karate Head Instructor John Trotta demonstrates his ability with nunchucks during a demonstration. Trotta achieved a fourth-degree blackbelt during the ceremony. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

As part of the festivities, the four men performed a demonstration of skill and technique for family, friends and the young students of Shin Karate. The Castellis, Trotta and Mastrando demonstrated weapons techniques including nunchucks, swords and bo staffs. They broke cement bricks with their heads and endured the breaking of a cinder block with a sledgehammer while laying on a bed of nails. It’s symbolic of the extensive testing that is done to raise a level of blackbelt.

“It’s a lot of hard work, no matter what,” Castelli Jr. said. “It’s been a long time coming for both me and my father. We’ve both been at our ranks for some time. We put in the work and come here during the day and train hard and set this all up and show our students and everyone watching that, hey, we still got it. Check it out.”

It’s the same type of pride each instructor takes in their students at Shin Karate. Used as a mechanism to instill self-confidence, discipline and self-defense, Shin Karate has been teaching the South Korean style of Tang Soo Do to its young members for more than 40 years. The style was brought to the United States by Grandmaster Jae Chul Shin, who taught Castelli Sr. and notably trained Chuck Norris years prior.

“This place has been here for 40 years,” Castelli Sr. said. “Grandmaster Shin, who was my original instructor, was a pioneer and he taught Chuck Norris. He’s the reason the style of Tang Soo Do is in the United States. He was world famous.”

(from left) John Trotta, Joe Mastrando, Louis Castelli Sr. and Louis Castelli Jr. prepare for a demonstration during a ceremony at Shin Karate on Oregon Avenue. All four men raised a level of blackbelt on Dec. 11. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Castelli now carries on those teachings on Oregon Avenue. He co-owns the facility with Anthony Pelacane and their mission is to not only teach the physical aspects of karate, but to help kids grow as young men and women.

“It helps kids build confidence and makes them better with school work and with self-defense,” Pelacane said. “But the main thing is confidence.”

It helped a father and son bond in the Castelli household. 

“I love the discipline it teaches,” Castelli Jr. said. “I’ve done it my whole life, and I being a third-degree black now has kept me right mentally and physically. It gave me that sense of confidence that you don’t have to prove yourself. It’s great for the kids. I can’t wait until my kid is old enough to start.”

Joe Mastrando (right) uses a sledgehammer to break a cinder block over the chest of Louis Castelli Sr. during a demonstration at Shin Karate. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

That time will come soon enough, as Louis Castelli III is just 2 months old. It won’t be long before he joins the Little Dragons, who train at Shin Karate starting at age 3. After that, he can start eyeing up white, orange and green belts with more than 100 students currently enrolled there.

“The kids need role models and positive influence, especially today,” Castelli Sr. said. “But people need self-defense and self-confidence, so it’s very important. That’s why we do this. It’s rewarding. It’s the feeling you get from helping other people and seeing them achieve their goals.”

Maybe even someday the student can best the master. Has it happened yet in the Castelli clan?

“We haven’t sparred in a long time,” Castelli Sr. said. “He’s a lot younger. He’s 29. He’s pretty good and pretty strong. But sometimes the old dog can teach the new dog some new tricks.”

Castelli Jr. showed great discipline in restraint when the same question was asked.

“That’s my master so I’m going to bow out of that one,” he said with a laugh. “If you asked me as a son, I might have a different answer, but when I’m in the dojo, that’s my master. I bow to him.”