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NOT A DOUBT THAT THIS BOY EMBODIES KARATE SPIRIT.

Byline: DENNIS McCARTHY

Fear and doubt never had a chance. Not from the minute Sam Flores laid eyes on 8-year-old Cole Massie wrapping both arms around a handrail at the Glendale YMCA and inching his way up the last 16 steps to make it to his karate class on time.

Those steps were supposed to be Flores' way out of this dilemma -- the fear and doubt he was feeling.

The fifth-degree black belt sensei -- a master karate teacher -- feared no man. But he had come to fear this little boy with cerebral palsy who wanted so badly to learn karate.

For hours, Cole would sit in his wheelchair in his room watching pirate movies on TV and practicing karate moves to help the good guys win, says his mother, Michelle Massie.

For his 9th birthday, he wanted only one thing, he told her. Real karate lessons.

For weeks, Michelle called every karate instructor in the Yellow Pages only to hear the same answer:

``Sorry, we don't take severely handicapped children in wheelchairs as students. We are not trained to train them.''

The Glendale YMCA was her last hope. A friend had told her about Flores, and how all the kids there loved him. Their sensei spent as much time in class teaching pride and respect as he did teaching them to fight and defend themselves.

If anyone could see past the wheelchair and her son's physical disability and know what to do, it would be this 50-year-old sensei with the big heart.

Michelle crossed her fingers and dialed his number.

Flores put down the phone and took a long, deep breath. Those old enemies of his were back, slowly crawling up the back of his neck. Fear and doubt.

``I knew I wasn't trained for this, and to be honest, I didn't want to do it,'' he said.

Flores thought long and hard, but in the end he called Michelle and gave her the bad news -- couching it with a plausible excuse.

The elevator at the Glendale YMCA only went up to the third floor and his karate class was on the fourth floor. There was no handicapped access to get Cole to class in his wheelchair. I'm sorry, he said.

Flores hung up feeling as low as he had in a long time. Fear and doubt had won.

Michelle hung up and started to cry. She had nowhere else to turn. In a few minutes, she would walk into her son's room and tell him she had tried -- but failed.

He was a great kid, never gave her or his father, Will, a second's worth of trouble or back talk. They had told Cole he could be whatever he wanted to be, not to let his wheelchair and cerebral palsy define him.

But it was defining him, and that made Michelle angry. She never made it to Cole's room that day. She picked up the phone and called Flores back.

``Are you saying the only reason Cole can't take lessons is because of those steps?'' she asked him.

Sam smiled. He could see what was coming. This was one tough mother and kid that his fear and doubt were going up against.

``I'll carry my son up those steps if you'll take him,'' Michelle said, holding her breath.

There was a long pause. ``Mondays and Wednesdays at 3:45 p.m.,'' the sensei said. ``See you there.''

And that's where Cole has been every Monday and Wednesday at 3:45 p.m. for the past nine months, arriving half an hour early so he can cling to the handrail and inch his crippled body up those last 16 steps to make it to class on time.

``I carried him the first six months, but now he wants to do it himself, show his sensei how far he has come,'' Michelle said last week.

Cole has nothing to prove to anyone, Flores says, watching the boy struggle up those steps last week.

``It used to break my heart watching him, but now I only feel pride and respect for him. This little boy is the essence of the karate spirit. Even though his body will not allow him to do what other kids can do, he never gives up.

``He has become the inspiration of my class, and teaching him karate has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done.''

There was a special class last Saturday at the Glendale YMCA for Cole Massie's 9th birthday.

The sensei bowed and stood in front of his 20 students, who bowed back. Cole sat with them in his wheelchair, practicing all the modified moves Flores had devised for him.

Cole knew his test for a novice's yellow belt -- the first color belt in karate -- would be coming up soon. He just didn't know when.

Flores led the class through all the techniques, asking Cole before each one what it meant and how to say it in Japanese.

``I didn't tell him, but this was his test,'' Flores said. ``Cole may be limited because of his physical limitations, but he grasped and excelled at the mental, spiritual essence of the karate spirit.''

At the end of the session, the sensei announced that in 25 years as a teacher he never had one student score 100 percent on his yellow-belt test.

Cole Massie was his first.

Flores walked over to the boy and handed him his yellow belt as the class began clapping and cheering.

With a smile that lit up the room, Cole Massie looked up at his sensei, then over at his mom and dad. ``I knew I could do it. I earned it,'' Cole said.

Yes, he had. One step at a time. Fear and doubt never had a chance.

dennis.mccarthy(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3749

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Karate instructor Sam Flores, goofing around with Cole Massie, 9, at the Glendale YMCA, at first feared he couldn't teach a boy in a wheelchair. But with modifications, Cole learned the moves to earn a yellow belt in the martial art.

(2 -- color) Karate instructor Sam Flores tries a few moves with student Cole Massie, 9, at the Glendale YMCA on Friday. Despite his cerebral palsy, Cole has earned his yellow belt and is working toward the prized black belt. But the hardest part of learning karate was walking up the 16 steps to the fourth-floor classroom, out of reach of the Y's elevator.

Alex Collins/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 17, 2006
Words:1085
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