Trendsetters

Pain, Power & Passion

Kelly Muir survived a rough upbringing and alcoholic father to become one of the nation's premier female martial artists. She then went bankrupt and nearly blind before regrouping to thrive again.

By
From the Pain, Power & Passion issue of Capital Style
  • WILL SHILLING
  • WILL SHILLING
  • WILL SHILLING
  • WILL SHILLING

Kelly Muir was on her bed working through geometry homework when her loving but drunken father walked in, said good night, retreated to his room, and picked up a gun.

The sound of the shot pierced the 15-year-old girl's ears, but after too many tumultuous years, she almost breathed a sigh of relief. She walked out of her East Side house to a neighbor. "My dad just shot himself," she said. "You need to call 911."

Kelly, a student at Bexley High School who shielded others from her unstable upbringing, wasn't surprised. Her typically unemployed parents had moved the family to 36 different places around the country by that point, and her older brother and sister had already defected. Earlier that day, her mother left, too.

But when police arrived, they found Dad passed out-not dead. He had missed.

Kelly loved the daddy with a good heart who could always make people laugh, but she feared the demons of the drug addict. "The only thing he got really right was that he loved us," Kelly said. "I thought, 'You know, he's not going to make it. And I'm not going down with him."

So she loaded her massive teddy bear into the passenger seat of a junky, white Ford Falcon given to her by her father, who may have won it playing poker. And, despite not having a license, she turned the key, pressed the gas pedal and headed west with little but the one important skill that had become her beacon of hope: martial arts.

Now 40, Kelly owns a successful martial arts studio on the same side of Columbus where her father tried to take his life. And to hundreds of children, she is not just a highly talented teacher, she is an inspiration.

"She is, I'm telling you, a hero," said Lisa Dolin, a Bexley mother whose two children study with Kelly. "She holds students accountable, but the way that she does it is so inspirational, gentle, professional, motivational. She's never unkind. She never takes a tone. But they follow her as if she's Moses, you know? It's incredible."

On an uneventful Monday afternoon in Kelly's martial arts studio, as pint-sized students wearing black uniforms and colored belts trickle in, Kelly's eight-year-old son Reece admits he likes karate because he can hit things and show off. But like other students at the dojo, he relishes teaching his peers-an empowering system his mother has found works well. "They'll ask for help, and I'll just show them what they need to know," Reece says. "I'll just try to encourage them to do their best."

Chicken pox peppered seven-year-old Kelly's body, but the pain included a payoff: She was granted permission to watch the family's old and often-forbidden TV. Like thousands of others, the little girl in the woods of Pennsylvania found herself not only transfixed on the 1976 Olympic Games, but also awed by the dazzling athleticism of Nadia Comaneci.

I, she thought to herself, want to become an Olympic gymnast.

Kelly talked her parents into taking her into town to a free class at the YMCA, but once she arrived, she looked at the bars and balance beam, shuddered and left. Back home, she told her brother she had changed her mind about gymnastics, but that she still wanted to be an Olympian. He opened an encyclopedia to check other sports, and stopped at martial arts. "You could do this," he said, "because you hit me all the time."

As free classes eventually proved, she could do it-and well. With her eyes fixed on the Olympics (though a women's team did not yet exist), she pleaded with her father to settle down so she could seriously train.

"Three years," she begged him. "Please."

He moved the family to Columbus and delivered. After Kelly drove off that one frightening night and spent time with her sister in Oklahoma, she returned to Central Ohio on her own. She lied about her age to snag a job at a deli and rented an attic for $50 a month near the Police Athletic League, where she trained.

At 20, she placed fifth at tryouts for the United States National martial arts team and caught the attention of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which was putting together a group to compete in the 1996 games. Soon, she was at an exclusive Olympic facility in Colorado Springs, training among the nation's best.

"It was amazing," she said. "That's when I grew up."

Behind the desk at the dojo, Columbus State freshman Jordan Allen, 19 - a karate student, teacher and receptionist - tidies paperwork and laughs with children as class time approaches. After a health issue ended her soccer career at 16, she found solace in not only karate but also in Kelly. "She's a huge inspiration," Allen says. "Her optimistic attitude through the hardest times - it amazes me."

Skillfully navigating the roads of Los Angeles, Kelly pulled up to the same comfy coffee shop she visited every day on the way to her martial arts studio. But the Greek grandpa who owned the caf had prepared more than her dark roast with cream.

He lifted up a large black picture frame featuring a martial arts industry magazine with Kelly on the cover, high-kicking in a red, white and blue outfit. The baristas applauded.

"That was really huge for me," Kelly said. "That was the moment when I thought 'Wow, this is cool.' "

Having grown impatient waiting for the 1996 Olympic Games, Kelly moved to the Los Angeles area and opened her own karate center. She was garnering praise for not only its innovative style, but also for blazing her own trail as an athlete and businesswoman in a male-dominated industry.

Fariborz Azhakh, a master instructor at Team Karate Centers in Los Angeles, still remembers the first time he sparred with Kelly. They stood shoulder to shoulder, and she kicked him in the back of the head. "I was like, 'Who's this girl?' " Azhakh said. "She got my respect pretty quick."

Newspaper and magazine stories heralded the woman who was, by then, a young, divorced mother of two. Kelly opened a second studio that exploded in popularity as quickly as the first. It's believed she became the first woman signed by a major martial arts production company to make a video series. And she traveled the globe giving seminars on how to run successful schools.

But the attention was daunting, and Kelly worried that people would discover her hardscrabble background. On top of that, the cash that accompanied her success arrived as furiously as her fame, and she didn't know how to manage it. Her debt mounted. Things were spinning so quickly she even stopped training.

"I was just really tired," Kelly said. "It wasn't fun for me anymore."

At 28, Kelly filed for bankruptcy and walked away.

As the 16 students finally prepare for class, Kelly instructs them to line up. But as two same-ranking boys argue over who will stand in front of whom, one pushes the other. Kelly is not pleased, but she doesn't show frustration or raise her voice. She simply calls the two boys to her. "You two will be partners in our first drill," she firmly instructs. "It's going to be clean, but by the end of it, you'll be friends."

The eye doctor was clearly concerned.

"I have an appointment for you across town," she told Kelly, after what was supposed to be a routine exam. "You have a very serious problem."

Am I dying? Kelly wondered, confused and frightened, as she drove to the specialist. Do I have a brain tumor?

She was, in fact, going blind.

Her disease - a severe case of glaucoma - was the result of an injection given to her years before to treat a minor eye problem. Some of her eyesight could not be recovered, the doctor said. "Our objective," he continued, "is going to be damage control."

Kelly, who was back in Columbus and enjoying a corporate job with America West Airlines, was lying in surgery within 48 hours.

The first of several surgeries left one eyelid blackened and closed. On a trip to the grocery, a little boy stared. "What's wrong with her?" he asked his mother. She shooshed him. Suddenly, the woman who had always been pretty and confident was half blind and struggling with her vanity. "I looked deformed," Kelly said. "It was a real humbling experience."

Sept. 11 soon shook the nation, and Kelly was laid off. With clouded sight and no insurance, she moved her children from their home in Pickerington to Section 8 housing Downtown.

After five surgeries over two years, doctors saved the vision in Kelly's right eye, but she permanently lost 80 percent of the eyesight in her left, and does not have peripheral vision.

More than three years after her learning-disabled son started studying martial arts here, Kelly Unangst is still amazed. She looks at her boy - a nine-year-old who has been in therapy since age three - and wonders how Kelly holds his attention. Some parents credit Kelly with teaching public-speaking skills and the benefits of determination; others, like Unangst, rave about the focus she has given their special-needs kids. "He loves this," she said. "We've been in tears at these tournaments, especially watching kids with problems."

Kelly, long removed from her teaching days, had turned down similar offers. But she was, at that point, a twice-divorced mother with four children and was trying to earn a college degree. She needed the cash. So with her vision returning, she packed the children in the car, drove to New Albany and made her way into a stranger's basement.

New Albany tennis instructor Pam Lippy had not been thrilled with her son's martial arts training. "Harrison was involved with what I call the country-club karate program," Lippy said. "And what I mean by that is you pay the bill, and they get promoted every 12 weeks."

Lippy's neighbor, a Bexley High School graduate, recommended Kelly. After walking downstairs, Kelly moved toy train tracks to clear a space for the preschool-aged Harrison and his friend. Periodically, they wandered toward their toys.

How did I end up in a basement competing with a train track for a child's attention? she wondered.

But before their 30 minutes were up, her passion for teaching had been reignited.

"All the magazine covers went away. The videos went away," she said. "I was left with this little kid who just wants to learn how to kick."

Soon, Kelly was traveling from basement to basement to teach. By 2005, she had 50 students and enough money to rent a mat in a fitness center. Eventually, she opened Excel Dojo in Bexley, later relocated to Broad Street, and this year moved into a 4,000-square-foot building in Whitehall. More than 150 families train with her, and she maintains a 98-percent retention rate.

"It was just a matter of time before the best-kept secret got out," Lippy said. "That, I knew."

At one point, while Kelly's youngest son does jumping jacks and push-ups on the mat and her youngest daughter flits about behind the counter, her oldest son, who recently enlisted in the Coast Guard, walks into the dojo. Raising him, he acknowledges, has not been easy. But his mother, he says, has always believed in him. "She's definitely the most inspirational person in my life," he says. "She knows what she wants, and she'll get it, no matter how hard it'll be. She'll never fail."

Pam Lippy's son was perhaps seven as she walked through the neighborhood while he rode his scooter. Eventually, however, Harrison's legs tired. "Why don't you just sit down and rest?" Lippy suggested. "I'll go get the car and pick you up." But the little boy looked up and refused the offer.

"Kelly taught me," he told her, "that indomitable spirits never break."

This summer, Harrison will travel with Kelly to California to test for his black belt. The woman who instilled in him such a dramatic virtue isn't sure what her own breaking point is, but it's high. She's not sure why her father's wasn't; he killed himself when she was in her early twenties. And because he never saw his self-worth, Kelly said, she must cherish hers. "If I don't survive, if I don't thrive, then it means my dad truly is dead," she said, "and that's not OK with me."

She has not allowed three failed marriages to disrupt her sense of worth, though she has, she said, tried to learn from each. "I am very stubborn. I am very opinionated," she said. "The things that make me very good at what I do are not necessarily things that are conducive to a good relationship. And I have to work on that."

She is focused now on loving her four children - Shawn, 18; Shelby, 16; Reece, 8; and Rayne, 7 - and fulfilling what she feels is a responsibility to give back. She is preparing a program to offer free classes to disadvantaged families. She has become an advocate for glaucoma screenings. And at Christmastime, while she buys her children gifts, she also asks them to choose one to give to a child in need.

"She was always good, but in a way, I think she's just gotten more mature now," said Azhakh, her California colleague. "Everything she has, she's earned."

And this time around, Kelly said, she appreciates her success. Her mission is not garnering riches, but leaving a legacy.

Once all of her students are properly positioned, Kelly asks the class its goal. "Black-belt excellence every day in every way, ma'am!" they shout. Kelly, pacing the front of the mat, questions them again. "Does that mean we don't make mistakes?" she asks, then answers herself: "No." She eyes the two boys who had fought, with a presence that is not intimidating but commanding. "It's how we handle them," she says, "that defines who we are."


Kristy Eckert is editor of Capital Style.