How Karate Helped Local Sensei Escape Abuse

Jun 11, 2014

Sensei Joni Sharrah at USA Karate, the dojo she founded in Shoreline.
Sensei Joni Sharrah at USA Karate, the dojo she founded in Shoreline.
Credit Courtesy of Joni Sharrah

Joni Sharrah runs a dojo in Shoreline, north of Seattle. A teacher for 30 years, she knows that karate transcends punching and kicking. That's because experience has taught her that karate can save a person’s life – physically and emotionally.

Sharrah grew up watching movies like "Lady Kung Fu" and "Enter the Dragon," but she never considered studying martial arts. Then fresh out of high school, she joined the Ice Capades as a figure skater, traveled around the world and got married to a man who ran a dojo. 

Sharrah was eager to learn, but her husband hesitated to teach her. He said his karate school wasn’t a place for women.

Joni Sharrah is a 'shihan', or master teacher.
Joni Sharrah is a 'shihan', or master teacher.
Credit Courtesy of Joni Sharrah

Things changed after Sharrah had a scare at a convenience store when she stopped to pick up drinks and some ice. Two men followed her from the cooler to the cash register. Then they followed her out to her car.

“I was putting on the manual locks and they were tugging at the handle trying to get into the car. My chest was pounding, my throat was getting tight and I pretty much just felt this eerie sensation through my body,” Sharrah said.

She got away, scared but safe. When she got home, she told her husband she wanted to train in self-defense. This time, he agreed.

At her husband’s dojo in Michigan, Sharrah began to develop the skills needed to protect herself from strangers. But Sharrah didn’t expect that she’d have to defend herself at her own home, from the very man who taught her how to do so. 

One night she returned home after ice skating for a few hours. “I came into our home and all of the lights were off,” she said. “And my husband was waiting for me in the dark.”

He interrogated her. He questioned her whereabouts. He claimed she had been with people she hadn’t. And he beat her: giving her a bruised kidney, a black eye and a cracked tooth.

“He basically proceeded to beat me to the point where I knew I needed to get out of there with my life,” Sharrah said.

Sharrah took her dog and left for the airport, but just as she was about to board her plane, she received a message that her husband had been in a motorcycle accident and someone needed to sign for medical treatment. So she returned.

The couple started attending counseling and church, and decided to have children. But as time went on, Sharrah’s husband spent more time away from home and Sharrah spent more time at the dojo, teaching in her husband’s place. Eventually, she was running the school.

That's when Sharrah’s husband started to see her as a threat. As she sees it, “He was afraid, and so this fear was causing him to put more fear into me.”

It all came crashing down one Saturday night. “He just flew into a rage. He punched holes in the door. I tried to call the police – that’s when he ripped the phone out of my hands and ripped the cords out of the wall,” Sharrah said.

Sharrah did what she hadn't been able to do years earlier: she left for good. "I just took one change of clothes for me and my boys, each of their favorite toys, $500, and my car, and off we left.”

Sharrah says it's karate that got her through the experience. It gave her confidence to take on physical challenges and the ability to feel and see danger.

It helped her to recognize what kind of danger requires a reaction. “Karate training has given me the confidence to know the difference,” she said.

Joni Sharrah with her second husband Alan, who is a coach at USA Karate.
Joni Sharrah with her second husband Alan, who is a coach at USA Karate.
Credit Courtesy of Joni Sharrah

This confidence led Sharrah to start a new life for herself in the Northwest. She got a job at a health club, enrolled her children at a local karate dojo, fell in love and got married again.

And then she felt called to return to teaching. Sharrah founded the dojo that became USA Karate Academy. It’s now a community of 200 students she teaches with her husband and son.

Sharrah herself is now a “shihan,” or master teacher. She uses what she’s learned inside and outside the dojo to reach her students.

"Above all, whatever I teach, I want it to be useful and I want it to be applicable," Sharrah said, "so if a person needs to defend themselves, they have the tools to do it.”

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Spring Introductory Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.