Zach Harr and Kelly Arredia work together on an exercise during the team practice at Focus Martial Arts. (Kyle Grillot -

They’re world champions, but you wouldn’t know it.

Five students at Focus Martial Arts in Lake in the Hills already have moved on to their latest competition and packed their medals away in their rooms.

They’re proud, but have few words to say about their trip in May to Melbourne, Australia, to compete in the World Karate Confederation Championships as members of the U.S. National Team.

“It’s kind of one of those unsung hero things,” said Jim O’Hara, owner of the facility and head coach for the U.S. team. “These kids don’t walk around pounding their chests. They’re very humble.”

The team members joined 60 other competitors from throughout the country at the championships, to represent the United States in a competition among 22 countries.

Many of them had done so two years before when the competition took place in Venice, Italy, and brought home medals then, as well.

Among those on the team this year were 15-year-olds Jamieson Allare and Kelly Arredia; 13-year-old Rebecca Fishman; 16-year-old Zach Harr; and 14-year-old Lindsey Willis. 

All except Willis will attend Huntley High School in the fall. Willis will be a freshman at Marian Central Catholic High School.

Allare and Willis won two gold medals each, while Fishman won one gold and one bronze medal. Harr and Arredia each won bronze medals.

In order to even compete in the world championships, the students had to place in one of the top two positions in the national championships or qualify through the Junior Olympics.

“We, by far, had the biggest group from one location (to qualify),” O’Hara said.

Even more qualified than went, roughly a half dozen or so, but not all could go because of school or other conflicts, he said.

A member of the U.S. team for 12 years himself, O’Hara said there is no bias when it comes to making the team. The students must qualify like everyone else throughout the country.

But what does make the difference for those at Focus Martial Arts, say the students, is the atmosphere.

“I think it’s the people here that make it feel like it’s a family,” said Fishman, who repeated her 2010 performance and won gold in Kumite, or fighting, and bronze in Kata, or form.

Fishman, along with her fellow students, trains at least four to five times a week. They practice at home as well. 

“It takes a lot of dedication,” Fishman said. “You can’t just half-heartedly do it. To get to the nationals and the world championship, you have to practice a lot. You also have to be very motivated to do it. If you’re not motivated, it isn’t there.”

Words such as motivation, dedication and self-descipline are mentioned by all the students as they talk about what it takes to reach the level they’ve reached in karate.

Yes, they might miss out on some activities others their age are doing, but to them, it’s worth it.

And their teammates have become their closest friends, they say.

“It’s always been that thing that’s there for me,” said Harr, who started karate about 12 years ago. “I’ve learned how to act respectful and improved my physical life and how healthy I am.”

Like many of the students, Willis, who competed in the world championship at the age of 13, started karate as an extracurricular activity, something to do to keep her active

She had watched her older sister in classes and wanted to sign up as soon as she could, at age 4. 

“I just wanted the girls to have confidence and protect themselves when they get older,” her mother Suzanne Willis said.

For Lindsey, the activity became so much more, and the family’s schedule now revolves around trips to the dojo, as well as competitions. 

“They have to really love what they do,” Suzanne Willis said. “There have days when they don’t want to go . . . Once they go, they’re happy they went.”

The skills they learn overflow in their lives, with the students also becoming the top of their classes academically, O’Hara said.

“It teaches you a lot,” Allare said. “It makes you disciplined and you apply that to other aspects in life.”

All former competitors themselves, the coaches try to make training fun, challenging the students on different levels and cross-training so the days don’t become competitive, O’Hara said.

The students learn visualizations skills, he said.

“We spend a lot of time on mental toughness, discipline, control, the ability to bring the heart rate down when you’re stressing because you’re competing,” he said. 

“The single biggest nemesis that athletes have is themselves,” he said. “We have them focusing more on the point versus the gold medal. The way we approach it is you can get a point, you can’t necessarily get a gold medal. . . go for the point.”

Oddly enough, a competitor’s biggest distractions can be parents and coaches, he said. Students fear letting those people down, so they’re encouraged to focus on the things they can control, such as their techniques, he said.

Coaches and students work to identify each student’s gifts. Perhaps they’re more creative, disciplined or motivated. They then set goals based on those gifts, O’Hara said. 

“Instead of saying, ‘I want to win a gold medal at a championship,’ we focus more on doing the best you can,” he said. 

Whatever they’re doing, it’s working, said Jack Fishman, Rebecca’s father.

Rebecca actually didn’t like karate when she first tried it through another program at age four. She came home crying. 

The family tried it again, and she fell in love with her coach as well as the sport, Jack Fishman said.

“It’s been a wonderful experience seeing her grow,” he said. “We’ve seen karate as having an amazing impact on her, in terms of her attitude toward adults.”

Even little things, such as the bow the students must do toward their sensei, make a difference, he said.

Along with respect comes discipline, he said.

“It shows what you have to do to work hard to achieve something,” he said.