Jason Sasser was 13 when he saw a woman break two concrete bricks with her bare feet on television.
It was September 1985, he remembers. Alecia Rae Masalkoski was representing Michigan in the talent segment of the Miss America pageant. Sasser, who was recovering from surgery at his home in Crossett, was awestruck by her strength and skill.
"It just took me places my body wouldn't go," said Sasser, who has cerebral palsy.
That was the beginning.
From his wheelchair, Sasser imitated the moves as well as he could. He decided to seek out an instructor, but it took him more than 30 years to find someone to help him work toward a black belt.
For Holly Hardin, a tae kwon do instructor from Memphis who will receive an award Friday for her work with Sasser, disability and distance never stood in the way.
Sasser often felt isolated growing up with cerebral palsy in his south Arkansas town of fewer than 6,500 people in the 1980s, the same decade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started studying the disorder.
The only limb Sasser can move freely is his right arm, and he has limited mobility in his left. He was the first student with a disability to graduate from Crossett High School without taking special-education classes, he said, but he felt detached from the typical high school social life -- sports, Friday night football games, relationships.
Sasser, 45, said he grew up during a time when people with disabilities were kept apart from society.
"My world was so small and limited," he said.
So when he couldn't sleep at night, Sasser would turn on the TV.
He watched as much martial arts as he could find -- the sparring tournaments that ESPN would show in its early days, and the movie The Karate Kid more times than he can count.
It was a way of escaping from the constant feeling of not belonging, a way to focus on what he could do rather than what he couldn't. In Sasser's words, it was a survival technique.
"I used martial arts as a way to curb my enthusiasm -- or anger, rather," he said. "It just helped me get through a lot of pain."
He called instructor after instructor, explaining his situation and asking for their help, but he was met with rejection.
"Every time I told someone I was in a wheelchair, they would just hang up," Sasser said.
He said one instructor told him he would be a disgrace to martial arts.
In the meantime, Sasser earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. After graduation, he said, he feared that he'd never again find the kind of camaraderie he'd had in college. The martial-arts goal he'd set years ago stayed in the back of his mind.
"I never really gave up on it," he said. "It was always there."
In 2007, Sasser contacted Donna Judge, a karate instructor in Sarasota, Fla.
Judge said she had worked with people with disabilities before but wasn't sure how much she'd be able to do with Sasser. But she figured she at least had to try, so she drove the 800 miles to Crossett with a fellow black belt in tow and saw Sasser's face light up when she pulled up with her uniform on.
"It was a wonderful feeling for both of us," she said.
Judge realized that she could teach Sasser more than she'd anticipated -- punches, blocks and self-defense. She mostly worked with his good arm, but found that he also was able to use his less-mobile left arm.
"It really surprised me what I could teach him with the one arm," Judge said. "I knew it would at least feed some of that desire he had."
Because of the distance, Judge was unable to go to Crossett regularly, but she sent Sasser video lessons for two years, eventually adapting those lessons into a DVD, called Handi-Capable Karate, for people who use wheelchairs.
They stayed in touch, with Judge encouraging Sasser through the mental aspects of martial arts over the phone, and Sasser didn't give up on bettering his skills. He earned a yellow belt in karate under Judge's training, but he needed someone to train and test him in person to move higher.
A teacher in Memphis
In the fall of 2016, Holly Hardin was teaching a tae kwon do class when her phone rang. She let the call from an unknown number go to voicemail. Later, when she listened to the message, she called Sasser back immediately.
Hardin owns and instructs at Southwind Taekwondo in Memphis. Born in Hot Springs to a tae kwon do instructor father and a physical therapist mother, Hardin said she's been doing martial arts since she could stand. By the time she was 9, Hardin's father had her take over and teach his classes when he left the room.
She wanted to make sure Sasser was serious about martial arts. She said she sometimes gets calls from people just wanting to talk.
"I listened to his story, and I could tell that he'd really been looking for someone," Hardin said.
She wasn't unfamiliar with disabilities -- her father had lost the use of his right arm to polio when he was a child. Still, he trained in and taught tae kwon do throughout Arkansas and Tennessee, eventually earning his current status as a 9th degree black belt. He now lives and teaches in Northwest Arkansas.
"In the late '60s and early '70s, he was really fighting against what he had to fight against," Hardin said of her father. "I came from a family that has always supported the idea that there's no disability you can't get around."
Hardin said her father took her turkey hunting in the Arkansas woodlands. He raised her with the knowledge that as a woman, she'd have to fight for her place in the world, especially in martial arts studios in the '70s and '80s where 99 percent of the students were men.
Today, Southwind Taekwondo is roughly 50-50 male and female, Hardin said, and some students have disabilities. She said tae kwon do is an especially good outlet for children who have disorders such as Asperger syndrome that affect their ability to communicate and who have trouble participating in team sports.
"As much as I'm teaching them martial arts, they're teaching me about how to look at the world," Hardin said of her disabled students.
She said she's seen the martial arts world become more accepting, but some less-inclusive attitudes persist.
"There's a mentality that people with disabilities -- you just take care of them and that's the best you can do," she said. "If you keep that mentality, you never give them the chance."
Hardin decided it might be fun to work out with Sasser. Before she even met him, she started a GoFundMe page titled "Help Jason Sasser Get His Black Belt" to cover the costs of her trip to Crossett. She also held a fundraiser at her studio, selling pizza for donations.
Though Hardin doesn't have any formal training in physical therapy, she knew she could use stretching and resistance to increase Sasser's mobility. He requires help to stretch and lives in a facility that provides physical therapy only to residents who are sick or injured.
Research shows that people with cerebral palsy can benefit from recreation.
"It's really sad to think that that's the only thing that keeps his muscles from atrophying," she said of his stretching.
Hardin said getting Sasser's blood flow and heart rate up is crucial.
"It can add years to his life, and I'm happy to be a part of that," she said.
Hardin has visited Sasser twice, staying for a few days each time and training him in the therapy room at Snap Fitness, a gym in Crossett. By the second day, she said, he always has 10 percent more mobility than he did before.
She found it a fun challenge to adapt the tae kwon do moves for him and to push him beyond what he thought he was capable of, expanding his repertoire to more than 10 different strikes and blocks.
They sparred together, which Sasser said was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.
"He wanted the ability to defend himself," Hardin said. "We spar, where I try to hit him. At first, it felt weird to me. It was like, 'oh my gosh, this is awful.' But [now] if somebody came up to him and tried to snatch him, he's got the skills to put up a good fight."
A big-smile day
One of the days of Hardin's first visit -- Dec. 3, 2016 -- is marked on a calendar that still hangs on Sasser's wall. That's the day he broke a board for the first time.
"I just remember crying my head off, because I never in a million years thought that I would be able to do something like that," Sasser said.
Hardin said Sasser smiles a lot, but she has never seen him smile like he did that day.
"We just held each other," she said. "I just hugged him, and he just shook with happiness."
Now, Sasser practices two or three times a day, for as long as an hour and a half total. Training with Hardin has allowed him to build up his muscles and his strengths, and being connected to Southwind Taekwondo gives him a sense of community.
"Martial arts for me wasn't just about the punching and kicking," he said. "It was about filling a hole in my heart that needed to be filled."
Hardin sends him videos of her students practicing and saying hello, and they correspond through letters.
In the months that followed her visits, their teacher-student relationship grew into a deep friendship.
"When I need somebody to talk to, he's there for me," Hardin said. "We've come a long way."
"She calls me brother, I call her sister," Sasser said.
On Friday, Hardin will receive an Arkansas Traveler certificate from state Rep. LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello, in a Crossett ceremony recognizing Hardin's work with Sasser. The award, created in 1941, is an honorary title given to nonresidents for their service to the state. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Maya Angelou and Muhammad Ali are among its previous recipients.
But what Hardin is looking forward to most is getting to visit Sasser and to introduce him to one of her students who has been wanting to meet him.
In the fall, a year from their first phone call and 32 years from the first martial arts demonstration Sasser saw on TV, Hardin plans to visit again and test him for his green belt, the halfway point to a black belt.
"His will won out over his disability," she said. "I'm not doing it for me, but I get so much out of it. I just feel so inspired."
Metro on 06/22/2017
Print Headline: Martial arts dream comes true: Crossett man breaks board, his disability’s limits