It takes great courage to try something completely out of your comfort zone. Antonino Bussa knows this all too well and because of that he doesn’t have this fear anymore. Antonino was born prematurely at seven months and has a mild form of cerebral palsy (CP).
At the age of 40, with years and years of hard work, Antonino did something that he wasn’t sure was even possible. On June 8th, he earned his black belt in Taekwondo.
Even though his cerebral palsy is mild, his leg muscles were stiff and spastic as a kid and was only able to walk a few steps before falling down. Antonio would go to physical therapy three times a week, but that all changed when he was 6 years old.
“I had surgery on my right Achilles when I was younger to help me walk better,” Antonino said, “It ended up working in making both my left and right foot flat when I was walking.”
Antonino’s parents are Sicilian immigrants who came to the United States in 1977. Antonino was born and raised in Stanton Island New York.
Throughout his childhood it was clear that Antonino was very intelligent. That, combined with his hard work ethic, led him to earning a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from St John’s University in January 2001. This wasn’t the end for Antonino’s thirst for knowledge. In 2008, he earned a Masters in science and adolescent education from the College of Staten Island (CSI).
Currently, Antonino is an English tutor at the College of Staten Island, a position he’s held since 2009. From the fluidity of his speaking you can tell that this is a natural strength for him.
One thing that continued to be difficult for Antonino, was finding a suitable way to get the proper physical activity he wanted. This was the first reason that he started at Island Martial Arts.
“I decided to pursue the martial arts as a form of physical therapy,” Antonino said, “A lot of the instructors here including Master P would stretch my legs. I would come two days a week Monday and Wednesdays.”
“Master P” is Peter Parimithis, the owner and master instructor of Island Martial Arts. He is a 6th Dan black belt in Taekwondo and has been training for over 35 years in the technique. There isn’t much that Master P hasn’t seen throughout his time and he immediately knew that he could help Antonino.
“I’ve seen his CP and I worked with it before and I knew that we could do something with it. I was more confident about it then he was,” Master P said, “He had some upper body strength and not much in the lower body. He did Jujitsu before which is a style in which you do a lot of ground stuff. He was more interested in learning that stuff and I told him ‘that would be good we could teach you that. But if you work on your legs they’ll get stronger and more flexible. At first, he was doubting but then we started to do some things and he started to get stronger and improving. And long story short ended up getting much better.”
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stick with Taekwondo because I had faced a lot of challenges,” Antonino agreed, “I was worried that I couldn’t do a lot of very high kicks.”
The issue with the high kicks was the lack of muscle strength in his legs.
“I continued to say I would quit and this is not for me. But as I was saying that, a lot of my instructors continued to encourage me to keep going…So I did. The instructors also accommodated my training with my disability because my legs aren’t that strong but I have a stronger upper body.”
Antonino’s upper body strength comes from Jujitsu, a grappling-style form of martial arts, which he pursued for three years
Taekwondo was a completely different style of martial arts, which challenged him, both physically and emotionally.
“There were some tough times when he wasn’t completely happy with some of the stuff that we were doing,” Master P said, “We told him that you can’t give up and that everyone isn’t the same. Sometimes the instructors didn’t know what he was looking for and they were trying to get him to do stuff that he didn’t want to do. He was always saying, ‘Thank you Master P, thank you thank you’. Always thanking me no matter what.”
Of course, one of the biggest things Antonino had to go through wasn’t physical. It was the confidence that he had in his own abilities. There would be points when he though he just wasn’t meant to do it and was close to giving up because of the techniques.
“It took me nine months to get my yellow belt which it only should have taken me three months,” Antonino said, “Because my school has promotions every three months so I got a little discouraged. It took me three and a half years to get where I’m at now.”
“His confidence level was low and that was like holding him back a little bit,” Master P said, “He didn’t think he could do it. But once he started doing more and more he realized he could do more. And from that point everything started to click into place.”
Martial arts was once a source of embarrassment for Antonino because of things he couldn’t do. However, his determination, along with the support of his instructors, has made Taekwondo a source of pride.
That self doubt is completely gone from Antonino. When he speaks, you hear the strength and confidence in his voice.
Initially, Antonino was reluctant to try Taekwondo for one main reason—the kicks. He remembers having to do an axe kick for his orange belt. An axe kick is a kick in which your leg goes over your head and then gets stronger on the way down. On the point going down that is when it is supposed to have the impact or in this case break a board. This was done with Antonino’s left leg which is his strongest.
For his blue belt, Antonino had to do an Ap Chagi which is the Taekwondo version of a front kick. These are the proudest moments for Antonino because it was directly doing something which had always held him back. Even though he claimed, “The kick wasn’t high but it was enough to break the board.”
“You can’t wait for people to help you but you have to help yourself and that’s what I always do in life,” Antonino said, “I’m glad I‘ve learned how to become a lot more independent. It’s also taught me how to become more disciplined. There would be times when I would speak Italian with another instructor who’s a blackbelt and I realized it’s kind of rude. I’ve come a long way. Martial Arts is about helping other people in this world. I would like to help other individuals with disabilities all kinds, development, cognitive, physical and so on and that’s why I’ve been pursuing the martial arts.
“It’s made him a lot more confident to believe in a lot more things other than himself. It taught him to believe in life.,” Master P said, “There were times when he was down with some personal issues and we all talked to him and we all came through it. He came out of it a little better a little more positive and it definitely made his legs stronger and more flexible. He lives about a block or two from where the bus drops him off but now it’s easier for him to walk around.”
For Antonino to get the black belt he had to put in a tremendous amount of work. The first thing he had to do was perform a form called koryo. This a complex technique in which you have to remember 60 to 70 moves and perform them perfectly in order. After Antonino did that he had to perform three defenses in which the opponent was attacking him with a knife. He successfully blocked and then took his master to the floor with a quick trip. At this point, his jujitsu background started to help because he knew how to grapple and submit from the ground.
Next up was the board break. The first one was a hammer fist through three adult boards. A hammer fist is a quick strike in which you close your fist and punch from the side. After breaking those three boards Antonino had to squat and then perform an uppercut through the bottom of a board. That one was a little more difficult but after that he needed to complete a move with his right hand, which is his weaker hand. The instructors and Antonino worried but he broke an adult board and that was it.
“He was very excited when he got it,” Master P said, “We had a pretty good crowd and everyone was clapping for him and proud that he could do something like that. Everyone was behind him 100 percent.”
“I would have never thought I would have earned a black belt which I was I was very excited about the black belt promotion ceremony,” Antonino said.
But the impact of him earning the black belt has led to so much more. He has become much more confident in himself as a result.
“I wasn’t really open to trying new things in the beginning three and a half years ago when I started coming to Island,” Antonino said getting surer with each word, “I kept saying ‘oh I don’t want to try I want to stop’. Now that I’m a black belt I realized I can’t think like that anymore. I had to get rid of that type of thinking. You have to try before you ever say you can’t do it, try it first. Because you never know until you ty and when you try you start to know and realize your full potential of what you can do and what you can’t do.
“Just because someone has a disability that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I’ve stopped saying to my instructors ‘oh I can’t’ or ‘I don’t want’. Today I asked if we could change the board. And they said, ‘Nope it’s perseverance and this is the board break that we’re going with.’ Then I said ‘you know instructor, you’re right.’ I’ve earned my first degree so I’m done with that type of thinking.”
Antonino is also proud of the fact that the story is getting coverage. He realizes the kind of power that this has and the impact that it could have on other people who have a disability. For that reason, he wants everyone to know about his story with every single detail included.
“I think that other people with disabilities who have never tried this style of martial arts they should go out and try again. I never knew that I would get into this and be where I’m at now. At each single promotion I felt a sense of accomplishment. MY thinking was ‘now that I’ve earned all these belts I think I can do it.’ But when I had been a white belt for a while I realized how quickly time flies. I thought I couldn’t do it. I think I had this thinking that I couldn’t do it because I had never tried before.
“I encourage other people with disabilities to not limit themselves. I’ve seen black belt wheelchair individuals in Taekwondo and I think ‘that’s great’. They’re in a wheelchair and I’m not so I shouldn’t be complaining. We need more people with disabilities to go out and do things and be productive in society.”
“We’re very very close. I drive him home. I have about four or five guys that work with him and they drive him home too. My daughter especially always drives him home and does other things with him. He’s even closer with her. He’ll call her up and spend some time on the phone with her and get advice with personality and confidence. And she’s a very good influence. It’s more like a family then a school.”
The next step for Antonio is getting his second-degree black belt. He didn’t take any days off of his training and has an upcoming board break in September. This will be difficult because he has to go back and remember all of the different forms. But it is clear that he loves Martial Arts and it has helped his day to day life.
“It’s helped me gain a lot of coordination and movement but it has also helped me gain a lot of independence,” Antonino said, “It’s all thanks to the martial arts.”
“I see different people and it’s all up to them and their goals,” Master P said, “If they want to set that goal and if they want to try then I’ll help you get there. Never give up, no matter what it is. If you think you can do something, then you can.
“Never give up. Just keep pushing forward because life is going to throw you some curves but you just do the best with what you have.”
Antonino has this lasting message:
“I have put in so much time and dedication to train. When you have a disability don’t limit yourself. Go out and try things, that’s what counts.
“I want do this for the rest of my life. That’s my attitude now. I’m very positive and I’m very optimistic. We all know that in society in this day and age a lot of people with disabilities don’t get a lot of opportunities to go to school or earn a degree or earn a black belt. Now I realize that I have to be thankful and help others. And I think my achievement of earning this black belt is an inspiration not just to people with disabilities. And I hope people get that message and they understand to try.”
Hopefully one day everyone gives as much effort in making a difference as Antonino does. That would make the world a much better place.