Alicia Hargadon isn’t the intimidating martial artist you’d expect after watching movies like the Karate Kid, Kill Bill or Enter the Dragon. If you saw her on the street you’d think the 28-year-old petite nurse was harmless.
She may be friendly, but crossing her – well, that would be a bad idea.
“You would never think that she could come right out and kill you in two moves,” said Robin Erwin, one of her students.
Hargadon’s trained for 19 years at the Western New York Karate Center, making it almost impossible to catch this woman by surprise. But Jim Cvetkovski, the head of the school, did in presenting her with her fourth-degree black belt … and her fifth.
Hargadon was training for years to move from third to fourth degree. She was asked to test for her fourth degree four years ago, but respectfully declined. She wanted to really earn it. In May, she decided the time had come.
She went about the eight-hour final exam with ease, minus the slight nervousness she expects by now. After pad work, drills, self-defense, weapons forms and a display of personal techniques, she was exhausted, but happy with her execution.
She preformed far above the level of expectations. Cvetkovski decided it was a great opportunity to mix up the usual belt ceremony.
Hargadon was given her fourth-degree belt, one of a handful of people who passed their test that day. However, she was confused when Cvetkovski continued to talk, even after going through each of the students’ tests.
That’s when he pulled out a multi-striped belt he was hiding under a table and turned toward Hargadon. She didn’t just move up a level that day. She moved up two.
It was hard to find a dry eye in the house, even from the most macho of students.
“I’m not a very emotional person. I was trying really hard not to look directly at anybody,” Hargadon said. “I was like, ‘If I look at anyone, I’m going to start to cry.’”
It wasn’t just a personal accomplishment for Hargadon. It was historic. She became the first woman in the school’s 24-year history to earn her fifth degree.
Every person you talk to in the dojo says it’s fitting that Hargadon is the person to achieve this honor. She’s one of the most hardworking students at the school, and her commitment hasn’t wavered over the years. She’s Cvetkovski’s longest-tenured student, and he believes her recognition was way overdue.
“A few years ago I think she reached her peak,” Cvetkovski said. “She’s been at a level now that’s unbelievable.”
She’s proficient in Isshin-Ryu, a style that emphasizes balance in kicks and punches and takes from many other styles and techniques.
“Like the ideal master, although she is in a fight, she maintains balance, composure, serenity,” said Bill Reynolds, who has been learning the Isshin-Ryu style at the karate center after previously training in Kenpo.
Many of Cvetkovski’s students move away from the martial arts as they get older. Life gets in the way. They have to move for school or a job, or simply don’t have enough time for it anymore.
Hargadon isn’t like most students. She went to school at the University at Buffalo, allowing her to continue to attend. After graduating she still made time around her work schedule to train.
Even now, when she works 12-hour shifts at Roswell Park Cancer Institute three days a week, she manages to come in to train and teach on her off days.
In 2003 she earned her first degree black belt, the equivalent to graduating from high school in karate. After that she began to teach.
“When you teach something to someone it’s totally different than when you’re practicing it on your own,” Hargadon said. “When you teach someone else it’s really ingrained in your head. When someone asks you a question you either know or you don’t.”
By teaching, Hargadon has been able to pass on her knowledge, becoming a valuable member of the school’s community. Much of her impact is due to how modest she is about her skills.
“She’s always been so open, friendly, supportive and caring,” Erwin said. “She’s always been challenging, but she’s been realistic. She’ll push you, but she also understands.”
She has become a great role model for everyone at the dojo, from young students who are just starting to train to parents who are looking for a fun way to get in shape. Hargadon’s “Karate Moms” joke that they want to be like her when they grow up.
After nearly two decades, it has become much more than a hobby for Hargadon. Karate is an enormous aspect of her life.
“It’s like my second home,” Hargadon said. “They’re like my second family. … You know how people need an outlet sometimes for stress in their life? I come here and I just kind of do my thing.”
By moving to the fifth degree, Hargadon is five steps away from the highest tier of belt, a tenth degree black belt.
To calculate how long it takes to move to the next degree at minimum, you just need to know the degree a person is moving to. For example, to move from fifth to sixth degree would take a minimum of six years. To move from sixth to seventh would take seven.
To get to a ninth-degree black belt, like Cvetkovski, would mean you’ve been a
black belt for at least 40 years. It’s a lifelong journey.
Hargadon is focused on proving that she deserves the fifth-degree belt before turning her attention to training for a sixth degree.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” Hargadon said. “I need a mental-emotional break from testing, and it’s a good four or five years out at least. In like a couple years when I’m a little more mentally ready we’ll see how I feel.
“If not I’ll just one day see if he decides to give it to me.”