By Andrea Cruz
Whether it’s mental acuity, spiritual revelation or physical skill, the ancient art of Japanese sword speaks to everyone differently. Despite the weaponry, the training of sword is rooted in achieving peace, the training of sword – and its cousin karate – is often regarded as a way of life and a way of mastering oneself in the Orient.
“It’s the discipline, it’s the mindset, it’s the confidence, it’s the technique,” says Richard Ganey, owner of Budokan of Winter Haven, a training center for karate and Japanese sword.
Ganey, 47, began his lifelong journey of self-discovery via the Japanese sword at the age of 13. At the time, he says finding children training in the martial arts was fairly uncommon due to the extreme physical aspects.
Born and raised in Polk County, Ganey says his appreciation of worldly traditions came from an influence at home, specifically, his Italian stepfather, who encouraged the family explore cultural variety however they could. And so when Ganey discovered the Japanese sword, his attraction was immediate and grew stronger with each passing year of studying it.
Currently teaching Wado-Ryu karate and Japanese sword at Inside Out Fitness Co-op, located at 249 Third St. in Winter Haven, Ganey says that in the beginning, he studied mainly with American instructors. Around age 15 or 16, he had the chance to study with an actual Japanese swordsman.
“There was a marked difference between what I saw regarding the mannerisms, behavior, and techniques,” Ganey says, and adds the Asian teacher was as ‘fast as lightening,’ and unbelievably calm. Even as a teenager, Ganey knew he wanted that sense of calm for himself.
Later Ganey had the opportunity to study with Sensei Dale Kirby – dubbed the ‘Tennessee Samurai’ – who was predominant in the Japanese sword tournament circuits of the day.
“(Kirby) truly represented both sides, the peaceful, meditative and spiritual side of things,” he says, “but at the same time the other as well, which is being able to defend oneself using the sword.”
All the training led Ganey toward earning his first black belt, an achievement concept he says is actually based in Japanese flower arranging, but long ago adopted and used by Americans in martial arts training.
After receiving his black belt, Ganey says he realized that a lot of what is portrayed in movies regarding martial arts is just for show, to sell the product.
“Up until I made my first black belt, it was like I was in preschool,” he says. “You really don’t start learning anything until after you get there.”
And Ganey, a 15-year veteran law enforcement officer who spent six years as a Special Deputy US Marshal working with the FBI on domestic terrorism, says the more he learned, the more he wanted to learn.
“Just when you think you got it and understand it, then you find out something else about a particular movement – and you realize that, wow, I didn’t get it at all,” he says.
“You’ll get it right once, then get it wrong a bunch more times,” Ganey says. “You strive for perfection, understanding it’s something you can never achieve. But that’s okay.”
Ganey’s passion for the Japanese sword is evident when he speaks. He admits that even though he’s been teaching Japanese sword for about 32 years, he’s also very much still a student. Having had many insightful “aha” moments, he says there is potential for it all to become somewhat existential.
“We (Americans) make it mystical and cryptic – our perception of the Asian culture,” he says. He takes pleasure in pointing out the simplicity that can be found in one’s environment – the breeze blowing or a nearby bird chirping – a meditative skill he says that his many years studying Japanese sword has taught him.
Students come to Ganey’s class for many reasons, he says. For some, it is purely physical, they are not interested in “finding themselves.” They simply want to be a good swordsman.
“But some are looking for themselves,” he says. “And for some reason they think that I can help them. But there’s only one person that can help them. The answer to every one of their questions is within.”
Ganey tells the students that each move and technique has something to teach them and it’s up to them to figure out what that is.
“Because if I tell you, I’m not telling you your answer, I’m telling you mine,” he says. “When I train, when I practice, it takes me to a different place where everything kind of makes sense. And that’s what I want for my students.” Ganey says every student teaches him something about himself, too.Winter Haven resident Antonio Bivins has been training with Ganey for six months.
“A friend of mine told me about the class and ask if wanted to try it out,” Bivins says. “I have always had an interest in it from movies I have seen, but once I experienced the real thing I was hooked.”
Bivins, who is also a student in Ganey’s karate classes, says that he likes the mental and spiritual aspects of the Japanese sword.
“The fact that you must know yourself and your body,” says Bivins, is what intrigues him, in addition to the required mindset and the focus.
All ages (minimum 13-years-old) and skill levels train at same time. In the sword class, beginners use a wooden sword and start with how to draw it properly. Eventually, the long-term student will graduate to a real, yet dull, sword.
“We are a gun culture, not a sword culture,” Ganey says. “If you spoke to a man 300 years ago about a sword there was a little bit of reverence about that, there was a mysticism even in Europe that went along with a sword.”
Ganey says learning that same reverence for the sword comes fairly naturally, especially if one comes to class with an “empty cup,” so to speak – there’s no room for ego in his classes.
“When you train and practice with the sword, you’re cutting your ego, pride, and arrogance,” he says. “All of the things that make you better than someone else, there’s no place for it.”
After learning draw techniques, the students move on to body movements. Students also get the opportunity several times throughout the year to actually don traditional samurai armor and practice the techniques they’ve learned, as well as train with actual samurais visiting from overseas.
Ganey also teaches Japanese customs and etiquette. He encourages respectful behavior both in and out of the classroom. Eventually, Ganey hopes to bring a Japanese language component to his repertoire of classes.
Currently, Ganey teaches four classes a week. Karate is on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., and Japanese sword is at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesdays, and 7:30 p.m. on Fridays. Classes are $10 each, $60 for a month of one subject, or $75 for a month of both karate and sword.
“You could spend the rest of your life trying to master one particular way and never reach full mastery – and it wouldn’t be a wasted life.”
For more info about Budokan of Winter Haven visit BKOWH.com. Class info can be found at InsideOutCo-Op.com. Ganey can be reached directly at RGaney@tampabay.rr.com or 863-289-2412.