09/13/13 — Rallying around their hero in the competition of his life

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Rallying around their hero in the competition of his life

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 13, 2013 1:46 PM

They were only words, but they hit harder than any opponent he had ever faced.

He was a doctor -- not an adversary --but he delivered a blow that, for a moment, brought a champion to his knees.

A younger Kevin Thompson was a giant in the martial arts universe -- the man who once knocked Billy Blanks off his feet; a fierce competitor characterized by those who have faced him as relentless.

The words "back down" weren't in his lexicon.

But when that physician told him he was in for the fight of his life -- when he said "ALS" and "Lou Gehrig's disease" -- Thompson, for the first time, saw no chance at victory.

"I was caught off guard. This disease snuck up on me. I couldn't wrap my head around it," he said. "It knocked my wife and I to the floor."

And when he learned, moments later, that there was no known cure, he thought about giving up.

"I asked the doctor, 'Now what?' He dropped his head," Thompson said. "He never got to the concept of a cure. I didn't know how to deal with it. For the first time, I felt helpless."

He spent the next week confined to his home -- facing another battle.

"I was in a huge depression," Thompson said.

March 29, 2012, it seemed then, would forever be remembered in the martial arts community as the day one of its finest met a foe he wouldn't -- he couldn't -- face.

Luckily for Thompson, his wife and peers were strong enough to pick him back up.

"They responded like no other," he said. "And that is why I have taken this challenge on -- head-on."

Berris Sweeney, a local sensei who operates Sweeney's Martial Arts, was one of them.

And Sept. 20, he and his students will show one of their heroes just how hard they are willing to push themselves on his behalf.

Team Sweeney is set to embark on the "24-hour Workout Challenge" at 9 that evening -- an event that is open to the public that will serve as a fundraiser to help offset the mounting medical expenses associated with Thompson's battle.

Karate, Zumba, yoga, cardio-kickboxing and self-defense are among the activities attendees can participate in.

Sweeney hopes it will draw a crowd -- that his friends and neighbors will find it in their hearts to support a man who has, indirectly, positively influenced the hundreds of local youths learning life lessons inside the Goldsboro dojo every day.

To him, the $25 entry fee is more than a donation.

It is a thank you to a person who has always lived his life the right way -- a man who has passed down core values to young people across the world without ever asking for something in return.

Thompson is humbled by the notion that people he has never met would rally behind him.

"I cannot return the favor to the martial arts community as much as I want to," he said, his voice breaking. "It's very touching that people you don't even know have expressed their support."

The champion pauses -- and weeps.

He still can't believe just how many people are in his corner.

And the truth is, most of those who will participate in the 24-hour training session -- the children -- have no idea what ALS is.

Some don't even know who Lou Gehrig is.

But each subscribes to Thompson's martial arts philosophy -- a mantra that, even if the disease one day renders him unable to move, will never leave him.

And that, they say, is more than enough to bring them to his side.

"Martial arts is considered a way of life. It's much more than kicking, blocking and punching. And when you talk about a way of life, you're talking about building and developing the character of an individual," Thompson said. "The prefix of the word karate, 'kara,' it simply means to open, to share, to care, to love. We are working individuals -- working behind an open heart and open mind; a giving heart, a giving mind; a loving heart, a loving mind. That is what it is all about."

Those who wish to participate in the fundraiser -- and those who can't make it but would like to donate to the cause -- are asked to contact Berris Sweeney at 919-584-1777.