In 2001, the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation created a special award to honor long time member and pioneer in women’s martial arts, Sigung Coleen Gragen. Recognizing her unwavering spirit and strength in the face of her cancer diagnosis, we created the Inspirational Award to honor our remarkable sister. As a lasting tribute to the late Professor Gragen, the Board of Directors renamed the award, The Coleen Gragen Award of Inspiration.
As past chair of the NWMAF, it is my honor to name the first recipient of The Coleen Gragen Award of Inspiration- Karen Brown.
Karen Brown began her martial arts training with Sensei Jaye Spiro of Mejishi Martial Arts in Detroit in 1979. A self-described shy woman, Karen became more assertive and self confident through her training, and found Mejishi to be a safe, supportive environment where many close relationships were formed. Karen was committed to the dojo community and established herself as a leader there. Then, almost eight years into her training, on the verge of her black belt test, Karen stepped back and made the decision to stop her martial arts practice.
In a beautifully written essay composed for her black belt test in 1996, Karen revealed much about her martial arts journey- why she started, what evolved with time and practice, and what led her to stop so abruptly. With her heart wide open, Karen acknowledged the successes in her life, the joy of parenting her daughters, and the happiness she felt nurturing her many close relationships.
In the early 1990’s, still removed from the dojo and her martial arts practice, Karen experienced a sense of loss and despair when her personal life shifted significantly. Relying heavily on close friends for support, Karen sought an anchor. Instinct nudged her back to the dojo, and in May 1994, Karen tied a white belt around her waist, and in her own words, “began the long journey home.” In her essay Karen wrote, “It makes sense that I would find my way back to the martial arts at a time when my pain was the greatest.”
Karen returned to her practice with new intention and focus, and continued to nurture the relationships she found at Mejishi and the larger martial arts community, including the NWMAF. In 1998, Karen was elected to the Board of Directors and served as our treasurer from 1999 to 2001. She came on board with goals and a mission, and showed us how to move forward with intention and purpose. Karen brought vision and insight to her role on the Board, and she demonstrated exceptional ability to establish an action plan. Her teamwork inspired us and made each of us stronger in our individual roles.
In the fall of 2001, Karen became ill and required immediate hospitalization for viral encephalitis. Word spread quickly that her condition was grave, and her family and friends drew close to establish a support network. Hospitalized for two weeks, Karen suffered brain damage that resulted in a coma-like state. Confused and frustrated by the loss of memory and independence, Karen required constant supervision to ensure her safety. Family and friends held vigil, stayed by her side, supported her caregivers, and did whatever was needed to bring Karen through this devastating illness. The vast community that Karen had nurtured over her lifetime accompanied her on this unexpected journey, day after day, week after week.
Upon release from the hospital, Karen continued to progress at home with close supervision and support. Though Karen saw small signs of progress, family and friends were immensely grateful for each new sign that “Karen was returning”. We did not know what the final outcome would be, but Karen was alive and breathing among us. It was hard to ask for more.
In an evaluation by a physical therapist, Karen was found to be strong as an ox and in excellent physical condition. Encouraged by the therapist to return to her martial arts practice as soon as possible, Karen began private lessons with Sensei Spiro almost immediately. Despite the fact that she could not mentally recall her kata patterns, Karen found her body memory quite encouraging. One move flowed into another, concentration and memory improved, and with intention and support, Karen once again began the long journey home. Today, she has returned to full health, her job, and her training.
Karen said it best, back in 1996: “Karate gave me a lifeline that I used to pull myself up and onto my feet. It enable me to reach back into the past, grab something of myself that I had let go of, and pull it through to the present.”
What those of us close to Karen witnessed was nothing short of a miracle. Through unwavering support from her vast network, Karen rose up and pushed through to find herself in a new place, a new life, a blessed life to live.
To Karen, with admiration and love.
Written by Jenny Sinanan, July 11, 2003