It was a case of dislike at first sight.
As she stood on the mat beside her eight-year-old son, Josh, and listened to Ross Radke bark directions, Debbie quickly formed an opinion of their martial arts instructor. "I thought he was mean," she recalls, grinning at the man who is now her husband of six years. "I didn't like him because I thought he was too rough around the edges."
Debbie was in a particularly vulnerable place in her life. Newly divorced, she was struggling to rear her three young sons while working and attending school. She was also struggling to heal. Months earlier during the winter of 1998, when her car had become stuck in the snow while she was driving home late one night, the passerby she thought had stopped to help had sexually assaulted her.
Later that year, when Josh began taking martial arts classes at the local YMCA in Ottawa, Illinois, Debbie decided to join him. "I wanted to be able to defend myself," she says. "I didn't want to be a victim anymore."
An unexpected twist
What Debbie didn't expect was that she'd grow to enjoy the training, and even excel at it. "It was a perfect fit," she remembers. "I knew it was something practical I could use."
Ross sees a deeper impact. "It gave her a feeling of security," he says. "It empowered her."
Ross, a tenth degree black belt, had grown up with martial arts, trained at a young age by a family friend who'd fought in the Korean War. "I think I was born a martial artist," he says with a grin. Teaching classes like Debbie and Josh's was his dream job.1