When last interviewed, three and a half years ago, Joe Vetrano, fresh from having won Pan-American karate championships in fighting and self-defense, said his martial arts education had just begun.
A third-degree black belt now, Vetrano, 51, who lives with his wife, the former Karen Slattery, in Amagansett, still studies with John Turnbull at the Aikenkai Shotokan Karatedo Federation dojo in Southampton, a small school of dedicated students most of whom live here the year round. And he is still winning international championships.
Recently, in an American Federation of Martial Arts tournament in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Vetrano took first place in 35-and-over advanced kata (forms) and third in kobudo (weapons).
“It was my best performance in kata, for sure,” Vetrano said during a conversation the other day. “And despite that, the win taught me what I needed to work on. You never reach the summit in the martial arts — it’s a lifelong process. It’s probably the same for you when you write,” he said with a smile. “You’re always trying to write better. There’s always room for improvement, no matter what we do.”
“There is a tournament somewhere every week,” Vetrano said in reply to a question, “though our school doesn’t go to many. The one in Santo Domingo was the 23rd annual one the organization we belong to held. There were 150 competitors from seven countries . . . the Dominican Republic, the U.S., Haiti, Puerto Rico, Panama. . . . Six of us from our school went, including two women. I was the baby.”
Vetrano, who also is an assistant instructor at Turnbull’s dojo, stopped fighting in competitions a few years ago, he said, when a kick to the head in a tournament resulted in a concussion, the second he had experienced in his career.
“Every tournament is different in regard to the amount of contact that’s allowed, and because there weren’t enough in my age group that year — it was in ’08 or ’09 — I went up against a 25-year-old. . . . As much as my brain might have thought, ‘I’m quick enough,’ obviously I wasn’t. That made me stop fighting — I promised my wife. . . . I miss fighting less than I used to. There’s that adrenaline rush, and you do need the fighting in order to develop in the martial arts, but karate has many different elements. The sport side is just one of them.”
In the dojo, when he’s teaching, “we do everything, including sparring drills, but as I said to you in that other interview, we’re careful, especially with the younger students. We practice hard, but we’re under control. You don’t want to back off so much that you don’t learn. On the other hand, you don’t want to end up in the hospital every week. . . . We train very hard. We get bumps and bruises and sore muscles. But we usually feel better the next day.”
He had always done the forms — there are 26 in the Shotokan style of karate — but, as aforesaid, he had never done so well in them as he had done at the recent tourney in the Dominican.
In Santo Domingo, as five judges looked on, he did one kata routine with an open hand and one with weapons, matched in runoff form with other competitors. When told it sounded like an oral examination for a doctorate, Vetrano said, “It’s a self-examination really. . . . I like to win, but it’s not about winning or losing; it’s about performing to the best of one’s ability and about making corrections. You can always,” he said with a smile, “make corrections.”
He works out at the dojo “three to four times a week,” and once a week he studies tai chi (the yin to karate’s yang) at Southampton Hospital’s Wellness Center. He also runs, bikes, and lifts weights. “Karate’s very physical,” he said, “but you need to supplement it.”
As for tai chi, “the first time I did it, last November, I didn’t like it. It’s a slow and soft form, and I’m hyper. But if, when you first try something, you say you don’t like it, it’s probably good for you to do!”
Vetrano highly recommends karate for children (there are children’s classes at the Southampton dojo on Saturday mornings) “provided the instruction is good. With the proper instruction, kids build confidence, measuring themselves not in comparison to others, but based on what they themselves have done previously. . . . When you become confident, and give off an air of confidence, you’re less likely to be bullied. With the right instruction, karate’s wonderful for children.”
Asked if he were doing yoga, as his instructor, John Turnbull, was these days, Vetrano said, “I have not done yoga — there are only so many things you can do in a day!”
And with that, the Amagansetter, a salesman for the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company, was off to do battle with the traffic (the worst he’s ever seen here) on his way to Shoreham-Wading River.