- Written by Megan Joyce Megan Joyce
If athletic ability is supposed to dissipate with age, Ken Eberle’s body clearly hasn’t gotten the message.
Eberle is closing in on the 50-year mark in his dedication to the martial arts—but he achieved many of his most impressive credentials in his late 40s and beyond.
Today, at 63, his accreditations include a sixth-degree black belt in Korean Moo Duk Kwan karate and a brown belt in Isshin-Ryu Okinaman karate. He is a certified level-three instructor in Jeet Kune Do and has attained an intermediate level in Japanese aikido.
“I always consider myself the student, always learning, and I enjoy instructing others to improve their lives and set an example that one can still be active well into their ‘senior’ years,” Eberle said.
In 1969, Eberle was already a successful gymnast at his high school when he saw a karate demonstration by Donald Von Klopp, his school’s art teacher and an Okinawan Isshin-Ryu black belt.
Although Eberle would go on to become a local 1971 All-Around Champion in gymnastics, he had already joined and achieved a brown belt in Klopp’s karate club in the meantime, finding that the body control and attributes needed for karate were very similar to those required for gymnastics.
After graduation, Eberle regularly competed in local karate tournaments, consistently placing in the top three events: empty-hand kata, weapons kata, and point sparring.
He would eventually discover that his “regular job,” that of safety coordinator for High Steel Structures, marries quite well with the philosophies and approaches used in the martial arts, enabling him to spot potential hazards and correct them proactively, rather than only making corrections after someone has been injured.
“Safety is really about self-defense,” Eberle said. “The increased awareness to potential trouble areas is probably the biggest benefit in both [martial arts and safety training].”
In the late ’90s, Eberle began pursuing Bruce Lee’s training concept, “truth in combat,” after attending a seminar by internationally known Jeet Kune Do instructor, movie star, fight choreographer, and writer Burton Richardson, who founded Jeet Kune Do Unlimited, one of the top Jeet Kune Do schools in the world. Eberle became a student and a member of JKDU in 1999.
“Truth in combat” emphasizes the use of self-defense tactics that are truly effective in real-life scenarios. Eberle said he could never understand how one trains in so-called “deadly” techniques.
“Knowledge is not power; it’s the application of that knowledge with someone who is an uncooperative attacker resisting your efforts,” he said. “You cannot respond with a predetermined, practiced set or pattern of [self-defense] techniques to the reality of an unpatterned event—which is the reality of a confrontation.”
Eberle appreciates Lee’s emphasis on developing one’s own martial arts style, rather than strictly adhering to one particular system.
“It would be like recreating a bowl of fruit through an artistic form, say watercolors,” he said. “The pictures would be different because of each person’s expression of themselves, but some styles would say everyone’s painting should look the same.”
This philosophy has also made Eberle an effective PPCT (pressure point control tactics) and STAR (survival tactics and response) instructor for law enforcement officers. In addition to educating officers, Eberle has conducted training for the county’s sheriff’s department and courthouse staff.
He is most proud, he said, of his law-enforcement students who have actually applied their PPCT or STAR training and survived a life-threatening confrontation.
“Some of my students … have had to use the skills they learned in class, with great success,” Eberle said. “Their experience keeps the training real and honest.”
In 2002, Eberle traveled to Jeet Kune Do Unlimited’s headquarters in Honolulu to test for apprentice instructor, despite being age 49 at the time. Not only did he successfully complete seven different rounds of strenuous testing requirements, but he also surpassed apprentice level and was promoted directly to JKDU instructor level one.
To date, he is the only JKDU member to have achieved this and, in 2007, Eberle was certified further as a level-three instructor.
“The martial arts have enabled me to achieve and maintain a level of confidence, fitness, and flexibility better than most people half my age,” Eberle said. “I continue to challenge myself as an example to the students of the benefits of the martial arts through sparring and training along with my students.”
In 2009, Richard Bustillo, an original student of Bruce Lee and the founder of the International Martial Arts & Boxing Academy, certified Eberle as an apprentice instructor in Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do.
And in honor of his 60th birthday in 2013, Eberle returned to his tournament roots, entering the State Games of America national competition, where he earned a gold medal in the advanced elite black belt event, age 55-60 division, in forms, weapons, and sparring.
In 2014, Eberle took on the Keystone State Games, where he was a gold medalist, advanced elite black belt, age 60-64 division, in forms and a silver medalist in weapons.
These days, Eberle conducts classes in self-defense mixed martial arts and Filipino battlefield kali private lessons from his home studio. He is currently in JKD Unlimited’s “Indonesian Silat for the Street” program.
Eberle said the many varieties of martial arts all have something different to offer, making the opportunities for learning endless.
“Over the years, I have discovered the body only moves in so many ways. What one does with those movements can depend on self-expression or be dictated by a particular style or system,” Eberle said.
“After 45-plus years in the martial arts, I still and will always consider myself the student and see no reason to stop learning, improving, and sharing.”