Being a 63-year-old with diabetes and arthritis, Hastings resident Mark Laska was amazed to be at the Diamond National Karate Tournament with youngsters flipping through the air - let alone taking home first- and second-place trophies.
Genesis, the second-place form, is a combination of sharp movements. Chungi, a traditional first-school form of taekwondo, brought Laska to first place.
Going to the tournament, held Oct. 5-6 in Minneapolis, was a big accomplishment, Laska said. Although he won, it wasn't without some struggle and persistence.
"When I was doing the forms, my knees were screaming at me. I was just trying to move. But I did it, and I made it through those things. What an uplifting thing to be able to do that," Laska said.
Laska trains in Hastings at National Karate under the wing of director Gary Hui, previously having taught martial arts himself in Minneapolis and Hastings.
Long before entering a karate competition, Laska started out in the world of boxing.
Growing up with a single mother and living on welfare, he did what was a common thing for boys his age to do at the time - he joined boxing at the boys' club.
"I grew up in the Cities and, you know, I grew up during a time where that is what people did. They fight," Laska said.
While sticking to boxing for most of his young adult life, he also became the captain of his high school wrestling team. In 1973, he would start taekwondo during his time at the University of Minnesota.
Laska signed up to serve in the military a year later, but continued boxing overseas. While in Italy working as a chief information officer, Laska recalls a match where he fought the No. 1 boxer in the country.
"When we finished our boxing match with our 16-ounce boxing gloves, there was blood covering both of our gloves. I thought this was so much fun," Laska said. "When I was younger this is how I got started, but now I've moved on to things like tai chi. Now it's more of how am I going to get older and stay healthy. But yeah, if someone wants to try to take my Social Security check they might want to think twice."
Laska returned to the United States in the '90s after his wife, who he had met while stationed in Italy, died. All he had was two suitcases and $9, having used his money to try to keep his wife alive.
Back in Minnesota, he began to stay at the Drake Hotel in Minneapolis. It was a building, Laska recalls, that had gang graffiti on the walls and the doors were ripped up.
"I just remember trying to figure out what I was doing here. I wasn't getting out of prison and I didn't do drugs. I did everything I was supposed to do," Laska said. "So I had to start over with that. It's a different life. Going off and trying to get a free meal. It's not easy when you don't have resources. You're poor and starting over."
"One thing I would try to do is just hold on to something positive in life. Every Sunday I would go to the IDS building, put on some regular clothes, sit in the court and all I could get was a coffee and newspaper - just to pretend I was normal."
During his time at the Drake Hotel, Laska found another positive to hold on to, the Toastmasters. He had just enough money to go to their meetings, and he would go despite not being able to afford meals for the rest of the week. Laska would compete in their competitions and win. The group, which had strict rules on the number of people that could be in it, even voted to expand their numbers so that Laska could join.
Although he had found a place to escape to once a week, Laska started facing severe health issues.
"I was working two or three jobs. There was a period of time where I worked six days and I didn't sleep for those six days," Laska said. "I found out that can give you diabetes and help you gain weight. I went from 165 pounds to over 300."
Laska did eventually find a steadier, well-paid job, but the health effects of his diabetes were becoming severe. Laska started having difficulty standing up and walking, and began falling down often. Dizziness and difficulty with concentration were other symptoms that affected Laska.
"I got to a point where all I could understand was the sentence one person said, or the one that someone over there said, or think ahead of what another person was going to say. I couldn't do all three, only one or the other," Laska said.
Laska's doctors put him on many different medications, many telling him that they were ineffective in lowering his blood sugar.
While staying at the VA Hospital, Laska picked up tai chi and found that it was helping him greatly. Despite what his doctor at the time was saying, Laska began lowering his medication on his own.
"As I was doing the tai chi and reducing the medicine, my blood sugar would drop. Reduced my medicine a little more and my blood sugar dropped again. Eventually, I wasn't taking medicine. My blood sugar dropped. That happened for several years. They told me that wasn't supposed to happen," Laska said.
When he moved to the veterans home in Hastings, he would wake up and exercise in short increments starting at 4 a.m. continuing to practice and teach martial arts. Today, he does three or four hours of exercise total each day and he has lost over 100 pounds.
Laska still struggles greatly with his arthritis, sometimes having trouble getting out of the car or walking for extended periods of time. He also has issues with his neck and bone spurs.
"The karate gives me a chance to work on some of my joint problems. It also allows me to keep up my spirits that I didn't have. I am part of a group again. Now I volunteer and do lots of things like that but my heart is in all that fighting stuff," Laska said.