Sports & Recreation

Local martial arts studio victorious in virtual competition

Twelve students graduate to higher honors.

It began with a week of working out and sleeping outdoors, with nothing to eat each day but a single can of tuna or chicken and a solitary rice cake. It ended with first place awards and a graduation ceremony for 12 members of Ernie Reyes’ West Coast World Martial Arts in Hollister.

On Aug. 1, 360 martial arts students from more than 30 schools were tested in the Mastery and Black Belt Ceremony of 2020, a virtual competition held on Zoom. All 12 of the West Coast students advanced in degree and won a combined 13 awards and honors.

As part of the leadup to the event, the top testers advancing to fourth or fifth black belt level, referred to as the “Mastery Group,” go through a week of rigorous and extreme training.

“These tests can get really crazy,” said Nathan Fort, owner of West Coast World Martial Arts. “I participated in the last one, four years ago, and they had Army Rangers and Special Forces training us in San Francisco. They would do things like make us run with logs up and down the hills for 22 miles, followed by swimming in the ocean and other exercises.”

For this event’s Mastery Group, comprised of Fort, 42, his wife Lisa, 36, his son Noah, 17, and BenitoLink reporter intern Julia Hicks, 17, the ordeal was considerably less intense but still challenging.

“We had to camp outside and eat a very strict diet,” Hicks said. “We were basically allowed rice cakes, canned chicken, canned vegetables, and fruit. We were very rationed throughout the whole week. We had two workout sessions a day with a four-hour break. We would start at 7 in the morning and go to 10 at night. It was hard but it was great team bonding.”

Hicks advanced to fourth degree black belt and during the competition won the best tester award for Best Technique.

Noah Fort agreed that the testing was rigorous. “You are pretty much on all day and having to go through all that is not super relaxing. It really humbles you.”

He advanced to fourth degree black belt as well, and won the national championship qualifying tournament, Body for Life best physique and the Best Overall Tester awards for his age and class.

The Fort family continued its success in the competition, with Lisa Fort advancing to fourth degree black belt and winning the national championship qualifying tournament, Body for Life best physique and the Best Overall Tester awards for her age and class. Nathan Fort won the Body for Life most weight loss award and received the highest possible distinction: the Supreme Belt of Honor.

Hicks competed in the regular testing before and found the virtual testing much more challenging.

“It was difficult in ways that it would not have been if we had been doing the normal testing,” she said. “Usually you would have parts in the test where it is partner work and you have to be working with someone else. For this event, we couldn’t have that kind of contact, but we still had to do that part of the test and we had to picture a person there who we were interacting with.”

Besides the four members in the Mastery tests, West Coast had eight candidates in the lower levels of the testing:

Kyle Salazar, 11, Jarrod LaFavre, 14,  Ashley Cisneros-Avila, 13,  and Sadel LoCascio, 11, advanced to first degree black belt, with Salazar winning the best tester award for Best Technique and LoCascio winning the national forms championship during the qualifying tournament in their ages and class.  

Pamela Brister, 54, Zander Brister, 13, and Miles Gamble, 13, advanced to second degree black belt.

Nathan Fort’s youngest son, Aidan, 15, advanced to second degree black belt and won both the national championship qualifying tournament and the Best Overall Tester award for his age and class. Though Aidan was not part of the mastery group, he participated in the weeklong trial with his family as well.

For Hicks, even though the competition was purely virtual, it still symbolized accomplishment. 

“I have been in martial arts for 12-plus years and I have competed in these events before, but this was a little surreal,” she said. “Even though we weren’t all together as we usually are with all the organizations, I still felt we were all bonded together even through the screen. A lot of people felt the bond was even stronger because we got to train with people across the country we never have seen before.”

The best part?

“I finally got my name on the back of my uniform,” Hicks said. “I have been waiting four long years for that one moment when I can proudly wear my name.”

West Cost Hollister black belt testers. Photo courtesy of Nathan Fort.
West Cost Hollister black belt testers. Photo courtesy of Nathan Fort.


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.