A man with a knife came at 12-year-old Michael Marchica. The youth kicked the man's arm away and drove his foot into the attacker's stomach. An appreciative crowd clapped as the karate exhibition unfolded on a recent afternoon in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles.
Last month, Marchica earned his black belt, a sterling accomplishment for any 12-year-old. But first the Downey youth had to overcome a life-threatening head injury that left the right side of his body temporarily paralyzed and kept him in bed for months.
"I call him my miracle kid," said David Torres, who owns the Pico Rivera studio where Marchica trains. "He was in pain and discomfort. He never once gave up and said, 'I can't.' "
Marchica, a stocky boy with sandy blond hair, was injured on a water skiing trip with his father at a lake in San Bernardino County. It was overcast and began sprinkling that August day in 1984. Marchica urged his father to allow him one more ride on a Jet Ski. The boy motored away, but soon lost control and slammed into the family's moored boat.
Woke Up in the Hospital
"All I remember was me riding and trying to turn," Marchica said. "I woke up in the hospital and thought it was a dream. I went back to sleep and woke up in the morning and saw these tubes in my nose."
There was no blood flowing from Marchica's head as he lay unconscious in the water, his father, Pete D. Marchica, said. But the left side of his head was battered and immediately started to swell.
"I was absolutely petrified," the father said. "I knew that he was . . . severely hurt."
The accident shattered a good portion of the boy's skull. He was in the hospital for more than a week and stayed out of school six months. After several operations, surgeons in September, 1985, installed a plate to cover the gaping hole in Marchica's skull. The youth has a lengthy scar that runs in a semicircle, beginning at his left temple and ending just above his ear.
Marchica began studying karate when he was 5 years old and had attained the rank of blue belt--a middle ranking--before the accident.
The youth figures the accident slowed his campaign for a black belt by more than two years. He said he could not resume training seriously for more than a year after the accident, and then he had a lot of re-learning to do.
"I couldn't remember all my stuff," Marchica said. "It took a year to get up to it again."
Marchica credits Torres, his longtime instructor, with accelerating his comeback by prescribing a series of exercises and a weight-training program to strengthen his right side.
"Once I got going, I felt pretty good because I was getting my strength back and was moving around," said Marchica, who will be a seventh-grader at East Middle School in Downey this fall.
Marchica said that virtually all his strength has returned, but he still tends to rely on his left arm and leg when he needs to throw a strong kick or punch. "When we break boards in exhibitions, I do it with my left hand," he said. And he does not participate in the freestyle fighting called sparring because of the danger that the plate in his head could become dislodged.
But for a 12-year-old junior black belt, Marchica has strong technique and is very adept at "kata," a soliloquy of motion in which a fighter simulates battle against a gang of opponents, Torres said. Marchica is the youngest person to receive a black belt at his studio, Torres said.
In addition to training, Marchica spends part of his days as a volunteer teacher, working primarily with youngsters 5 to 16 years old.
On a recent morning, Marchica spun one way and drove his arm downward. He moved back and three students followed his lead.
"Wrap around the shoulder, a knee to the chest, an elbow to the back," Marchica said as he led the boys through the moves.
Marchica said he has never had to use his karate to protect himself: "I've just been in push fights." But he said the training has been invaluable.
"I can be more in shape, more disciplined and confident," he said. "I think it has helped my recovery."