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.
Though Debbie quickly embraced martial arts, nearly a year passed before she warmed to her instructor. A man she knew from church, who had developed strong feelings for her that she didn't return, had begun stalking her, even breaking into her house to intimidate her. Alone and frightened, she mentioned her troubles to Ross one evening after class. Since he also worked as a part-time private investigator to help pay his bills, Ross volunteered to help.
Working together—changing locks and bumping up the security measures in Debbie's house—they forged a friendship. Dealings with ex-spouses (Ross was also recently divorced), their kids (Ross also has three), and a mutual love of martial arts gave them plenty of topics to discuss—and bond over. Debbie saw a side to Ross that was very different from her gruff instructor. "He let me inside his heart," she says, "and I saw him for who he really was. Outside he's the big tough guy, but inside he's a teddy bear."
Ross asked her out on a date, which was a huge success. "We just clicked," Debbie recalls. "We stayed up all night talking."
That one date turned into many. Debbie began assisting Ross with his classes, eventually graduating to a full instructor with classes of her own. She enjoyed combining her longtime love of teaching with her new love of martial arts. And their relationship deepened.
For Ross, whose first marriage had been destroyed by the fallout from an alcoholic spouse, Debbie was a breath of fresh air. "She's so open and loving," he says. "It was easy to have fun with her. And I loved her three boys."
Debbie's sons were just as pleased. "The kids were the first to suggest Ross and I should date," she says. "They still tell everyone, 'We picked him to be our dad.'"
Not the Brady Bunch
Despite their increasing closeness and her love for Ross, Debbie knew things weren't that simple. Both she and Ross bore scars from their previous marriages, and Debbie was still seeing a Christian therapist to deal with the long-term effects of the assault. When Ross proposed after six months, she didn't say yes—at first.
"I said, 'You're going to have to see my counselor,'" she recalls. "I was determined I wasn't going to marry him unless I was absolutely certain who he was."
They spent three weekends with the counselor, Fridays and Saturdays, five hours each day. They took personality tests. And they talked a lot about how to make their marriage work. "We talked about being married before, and how we'd deal with living with another person again," Debbie says. "And how to deal with stepchildren. They say most second marriages end because of stress from the first marriage. I think things we learned in those sessions saved us. Without them, I don't think we'd have made it through the first year!"
Six months later, in August 2001, Debbie and Ross were married. Although combining their two families wasn't always easy, the extensive discussions on parenting they'd had during their engagement served them well. Above all, they'd determined to maintain a united front. "It's not anything like The Brady Bunch," Ross says ruefully. "All these kids have different feelings and needs, and they all act out to a certain extent. It's tough on our relationship, but we've done well figuring what works and what doesn't."
Debbie and Ross were both reared in the church, and their mutual faith made an enormous impact on their marriage—especially for Debbie, who was still struggling with anger and trust issues from her assault. "If I didn't have faith, I couldn't be married again," she admits. "I chose not to get bitter. I tell everybody God loves me more than he does most people because his grace has brought me through so much."
Both non-confrontational, Ross and Debbie had to learn healthy ways to deal with stresses and frustrations over kids or ex-spouses. "I'm really bad about dealing with disagreements," Debbie admits. "I tend to stuff it down and leave it alone."
"My first marriage was fraught with daily confrontation," Ross says. "So I avoid conflict." They now handle their anger in a variety of ways. Some methods, such as praying together and talking things out, are shared by many couples. Others—sparring together or hitting the bag—are unique to their relationship.
Things went well their first year of marriage—as smoothly as was possible with six kids in the house. Then Debbie made a discovery that would open a new chapter of their lives.
While Ross and Debbie were still dating, he left the YMCA and rented a building in which to teach classes. Now that they were married, they shared a dream to own their own martial arts studio. As she was running errands one day, Debbie noticed a building for sale that she was certain would make an ideal studio. She could hardly wait to get home and talk to Ross.
"I told him, 'I saw this building that would be perfect for our school,'" she recalls. "He asked, 'Where is it?' When I told him he already knew of it."
"It was an old grocery store," Ross says. "When I'd looked at it years before, it wasn't for sale.
I knew it could be lived in as well as be a school—something I dreamed about."
Convinced it was God opening a door, they purchased the building and set to work. And there was a lot of work to be done. First Ross and Debbie concentrated on the construction that was required before they could open the school. Once they had classes up and running, they were able to plunge into readying the rest of the building for their family. With no kitchen, no shower, and all the plumbing needing to be replaced, it was a monumental task. Finally in May 2002, about seven months after they'd taken ownership, the Radkes moved into the living quarters of their studio.
Having their home located in the same building as their studio added another way that Ross and Debbie could subtly share their faith. They'd always been up front about the fact that they're Christians. "All of our students know we're Christians," Debbie says. "But we don't force it on them, and though Ross and I pray beforehand, we don't in class."
Adds Ross, "We have a lot of kids who come from broken homes and look at us as their surrogate mom and dad. They see the Christian side of us even more than some of the others do."
Since students now must enter their home on the way to the studio, Ross and Debbie's faith is even more evident. "You have to walk down our hallway to reach the school," Debbie explains. "We have Isaiah 40:31 on our wall: 'They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint'" (KJV).
"Plus, some of our students go to the same church we do," Ross adds. "Sometimes we'll talk about youth group and things like that."
Ross and Debbie have discovered another unique way to integrate their love of martial arts with their faith—through teaching self-defense classes. When Debbie earned her black belt and began teaching, she approached Ross about adding self-defense to his strictly martial arts curriculum.
"I told Ross, 'What good is a black belt if we have a young girl who can be pulled down an alley because she can't protect herself?'" Debbie recalls. "It became a burden to me, and he caught the fire of it."
They not only added self-defense classes at the school, but began reaching out to their community, regularly teaching classes at local schools, nursing facilities, and Friendship Village, a home for mentally disabled adults. Sometimes it's groups of 2, sometimes 200. And they do it free of charge.
"I'm an Eagle Scout and have been a scout master for years," Ross says. "I was raised to do a good turn daily, and I've always lived that."
"We feel it's our calling—our church, our outreach," Debbie adds. "We don't do martial arts for money. We do it because we love it, and we love helping people."
They've been blessed to see firsthand the difference their classes have made in the lives of their students. Moe, a 30-year-old mentally disabled man, is a shining example. Teenagers would pick on Moe when he came to class at the studio—pushing him, stuffing leaves in his pockets, and bullying him.
"I took him aside after class and showed him a few simple self-defense moves that would handle those kids," Ross explains.
The next night Moe successfully used the moves Ross taught him to fend off those bullies.
Ross remembers the look on Moe's face when he came into the studio that evening. "He was so proud," he recalls. "Like he was king of the world."
Now six years into their marriage, Ross and Debbie are busier—and closer—than ever. In October 2006 their already large family grew with the addition of twin sons Aydan and Zander. Could this mean two more black belts in the family?
"They aren't old enough yet," Ross chuckles. "But they have been working out on the mat with me."
While for some, twins might mean additional opportunities for stress, to Ross and Debbie the boys are just two more opportunities to bond. Whether they're parenting their kids, running the detective agency that pays the bills, or teaching the self-defense and martial arts classes they love, they feel blessed just being together.
"Some might think, How can you stand to be around your husband that much?" Debbie says. "But I enjoy every minute I have with Ross. We have a totally unique relationship and a lot of people don't understand it. But we're soul mates. God knew exactly what he was doing."
For more information about the Radkes, go to www.ottawamartialarts.com
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.