International Karate Champion Merges Biomechanical Engineering with Martial Arts to Realize Goals


Portia-Elaine Gant
Photo by Jeff Shaw

In late October, the martial arts world gathered in Limerick, Ireland for the 2003 World Championships, and Sandra Geffert took home multiple wins for the third consecutive year. Geffert, a second year graduate student at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, competed in seven events and captured five medals, including silver medals in soft kata and musical kata, and bronze medals in team kata, team fighting and musical weapons.

“Soft style kata with music is my favorite because the music helps me focus. It also brings the audience into it a little more,” Geffert says. “Music is very powerful, and when you can move to the music, it just accentuates some of the dynamics of it.”

Geffert, who has been practicing martial arts for twelve years amidst her avid dedication to her academics, completed her biomechanical engineering degree in the UH honors program in 2001.

Though Geffert’s purpose in Ireland was to capture a few more medals to add to her impressive collection, the country’s beauty was not lost on her.

“The country is absolutely amazing,” Geffert says. “We stayed in this quaint little community town called Killarney; the biggest city near it is Limerick. We stayed in a hotel that had a castle out back. It was just gorgeous.”

Geffert also says she won as a student of martial arts and as a teacher.

“There’s a young lady I call my little sister, Dany Michelle, and she won a gold medal in soft style,” Geffert says. “It was a one, two, three for us because two other girls I teach, Amy Fruge and Lisa Abernethy, won second and third. To see that you can pass something on to someone, and they can take it to a level where they’re on top of the world is a pretty amazing feeling.”

With the 2003 World Championships over, Geffert is taking a break, but academic advising for undergraduates, martial arts training four nights a week, working on PhD in biomechanical engineering, and teaching martial arts to more than 150 students sounds like a full plate for most college students.

“Martial arts is year round,” Geffert says. “We kind of take a break between the World Championships and the beginning of the year. We still train, but I can eat whatever I want, so I call it the nice part of the year. I get to relax, catch up on finals, and spend more time on all the normal stuff I do in my life.”

During her down time, Geffert will still be working with her martial arts students.

“The best thing you can do in life is to give to someone what you have that they don’t. It’s a philosophy we live by,” Geffert says. “What’s ironic is though you’re giving so much, you actually get a lot in return. We as a team brought home 30 medals. All of the students I taught soft style to brought home a medal. Words cannot describe that feeling.”

Community service is an ideal that is upheld throughout the school through the Top Kick program.

“Basically, we go and visit hospitals. We do a performance, break some boards for them, and just try to make them smile,” Geffert says. “All the students in the martial arts school try out for the team, and the only thing you win is the opportunity to train Friday nights to visit kids in the hospital. Kids go nuts over it; they really enjoy competing for the team and making it. It’s great that they try so hard to make people’s lives a little brighter.”

The ideal of enhancing someone else’s life is one of the reasons Geffert would like to continue to coach.

“I’d love to someday, if we do go to the Olympics, I would like to coach some of my students,” Geffert says. “I know we have some with the talent. I’d like to coach them to a medal.”

If Geffert’s passion for martial arts is forceful, her zeal for engineering, and the discovery of the unknown, is equivalent.

“I’m going on for my Ph.D.,” Geffert says. “It’s my ultimate goal to be an astronaut or to work with NASA in some form or fashion. I’ve been fascinated with the space program since I was a little girl. I don’t know whether it’s the quest for the unknown or the coming together of so many incredible technologies.”

Martial arts and biomechanical engineering may seem light years away from each other, but Geffert finds that they intersect and push her to become a more wellrounded person.

“I know to be an astronaut you need to be in top-notch physical shape,” Geffert says. “Martial arts helps me maintain that with my student life which is pretty sedentary. It makes me push the physical side and education pushes the mental side.”

The merging of ideas is what entices Geffert in both martial arts and engineering.

“Martial arts is so much more than just the physical part,” Geffert says. “It’s a physical activity that forces you to grow physically as well as mentally, as far as the confidence in yourself and who you are as a person. It makes you question things such as your physical limitations and how far you can really go. If you’re breaking a board or a brick, you think ‘Can I really do this?’ It is the coming together of the mental and physical part, and developing yourself as a whole person.”

Read more about Sandy Geffert in the Spring 2002 issue of Parameters magazine.

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