Brisbane-based black belt Brian Haupt tells Shimbun why blindness is no barrier to climbing a martial arts mountain…
THERE is at least one major perk to losing your eyesight during early adulthood, insists Brian Haupt, and that is “eternal youth”. “I’m 53 and a very good looking 53-year-old,” the Brisbane-based businessman told Shimbun, with a hint of the humour and verve for life that have allowed him to climb from the depths of despair to the top of the world.
“Of course it helps that I’ve not been able to look in a mirror since March 1993, which is well before some GKR Karate students were born or even thought of. Back then I still had tunnel vision and I studied my facial features in the mirror and photographs so I wouldn’t forget what I looked like.
“It doesn’t matter how many years pass, in my mind I still look 26.”
Brian has endured a lot since so those last glances at himself as a young man and concedes that life is very different for him now. Then a blue collar worker who did everything with his hands, the deterioration of his retinas robbed him of a job he loved and – temporarily – his independence.
“It was devastating,” he said. “There were a lot of dark days and I still remember the very day I had to give up driving. It took me years to accept my new situation and I think the biggest realisation of what had happened to me came when I had to begin using a white cane to get about.”
By 2001 Brian had lost his sight entirely – and remains only able to make out major changes in the light – but not his indomitable spirit.
“I was sitting having lunch one day and thought ‘forget this, I’m going out tonight’,” he added. “So I went out with my stick, everyone spilt my beer and I spilt theirs and nobody cared. I danced, stayed out until stupid-o’clock in the morning and had a really good time – and that night changed my life.
“I realised the sun rises everyday and that you have to do whatever you have to do to achieve want you want to achieve.”
Brian soon set himself some rather lofty ambitions, including scaling Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa and highest single free-standing mountain in the world – in 2009 as part of the Highsight Expedition.
He completed the 5,895-metre summit alongside a group of vision-impaired and blind adventurers and in doing so helped to raise a mountain of money for the Queensland Eye Institute in South Brisbane.
However, the mountainous feat – “a bl*#dy long walk” which Brian recounts in his e-book Trek to Kilimanjaro – proved to be a warm-up for an even longer ascent; a ten-year climb of GKR Karate’s grading ladder to the heights of Shodan.
“After I got home from Tanzania I had a knock at the door and there was a fellow recruiting for the club,” the peak performer recalled. “I was jet lagged and still had calluses on my feet but agreed to go along to a class the following week, had a crack and have been going ever since.”
Some students may feel they know certain kata well enough to perform them with their eyes closed, but the reality of doing so should not be underestimated; never mind the challenge of learning their execution without ever seeing them demonstrated.
Of his steep learning curve, Brian said: “In the beginning it did seem very difficult because a lot of what we do with kata is so different to how a person would move in everyday life.
“Sensei Colin Tudehope has been marvellous with me and initially it was a case of him holding my wrist or elbow and moving it and giving me compass directions. After that it comes down to muscle memory.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, once you are up to speed it is not usual to look down at your hands or your feet to make sure they are in the right positions.
“Eventually, just like when you walk down the street, you don’t think about what you are doing and that is the same for me.”
The black belt is equally pragmatic when it comes to describing his prowess at kumite and is quick to warn anyone he spars with of the dangers of going easy on the “blind guy” as the charitable streak that took him to the top of Tanzania does not stretch to the dojo.
“What’s not to understand?,” Brian said. “If they kick me, I’m going to kick them – I’m not going to hold back so nor should they.
“When I spar with a student for the first time I tell them there are two things to consider; if you get beside me, hit me, and if you stay in front of me, I’m going to hit you.
“I do a lot of blocking but if I feel an opening I’ll take it and I’ve surprised quite a few people with the accuracy of some of my strikes.
“I can often pick up the combinations they use by judging the position of their fists and mitts with my forearms and that allows me to open up their guard.
“When I am hearing, I don’t just use my ears, I use my feet as well,” he added. “Depending on the flooring in the dojo I can sometimes feel their movements through the floor and if they are breathing heavily it helps me to work out where they are.
“It’s all good fun but I don’t want students to be nice to me because if someone attacked me on the street they wouldn’t be and kumite is my practise.”
With “bling” on his belt, Brian is also a respected instructor within Region 29 and believes his blindness allows him to provide a unique perspective on others’ progress and techniques.
Using his own hands and feet to ascertain and adjust his students’ positions and the eyes of supporting sensei and sempai as back up, he has become a proficient guide for karateka of all grades.
“Depending on what they are doing I’ll be able to give them little tips here or there,” Brian continued.
“Some hold their breath too much so I’ll encourage them to relax their breathing and others can be very flat footed, which I can hear from the way they move about.
“Likewise, I can feel from their blocks how they hold their arms and if they’ve got chicken legs going on.”
Furthermore, Brian is adamant that his presence in the dojo is as much a lesson for fellow sensei and students as it is for him.
“My classmates have to learn a new language,” he said. “They’ll say ‘Brian, watch me’ and then realise that they can’t say that because I can’t see and that they have to describe what they are doing when showing me a new kata or technique.
“And sensei in different dojos have to understand that when giving an instruction they have to be specific in what they say because I’ll do what they say, not what they do.
“My blindness has been a learning curve for all of us, but I hope they’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.”
Brian’s eyes may have failed him long before he first entered a dojo – or stepped foot on a mountain – but the Nidan-in-waiting is not blind to karate’s considerable benefits.
“You can’t beat the enjoyment of sweating like hell once or twice a week,” he concluded. “It’s given me a focus for four or five hours each week and the sense of achievement at mastering a new kata has kept me motivated.
“Karate has given me a lot of confidence and I am very aware of my surroundings. Anywhere I go now I’m listening out for trouble. I’m one of those guys that if I hear anyone getting any abuse or someone carrying on like a twit, I’ll walk straight towards that sound to make sure nobody is getting hurt.
“What will I do when I get there? What do you do in kumite? You don’t know for sure until it happens.”
*This article first featured in Issue #3 of Shimbun. Brian Haupt successfully graded to Nidan on 29th November 2020. With thanks to Steve Halama (on Unsplash) for the main image.