Amber LaValley is helping people channel their inner Jackie Chan one class at a time.
"Many of my students have played a lot of martial arts video games," LaValley said at her spacious Vision Martial Arts Academy, 3750 W. Robinson in Norman. "The fun part is showing them real life taekwondo."
LaValley, 18, has been studying Olympic-style taekwondo, a Korean system of hand-to-hand combat and self-defense, since she was 11.
"I got my black belt very quickly because of practicing obsessively," she said.
At the start, she was a shy child, afraid of loud noises.
"My martial arts master was Jim Hare in Shawnee, who began by speaking to me in a very high volume, but friendly voice," she said.
As her skills in kicking and punching improved, they became LaValley's motivation for further progress.
"Competition with others is what really got my fire going," she said.
There's no doubt her spirit was ignited. She won championship gold for the women's 14-16-year-old class in the American Taekwondo Association's 2007 competition in Little Rock, Ark.
"I was down by two points. The adrenaline was pumping and I threw a roundhouse kick with my back foot," she said. "It wasn't my normal style, but it connected and I won by a point."
LaValley is certified to teach the American Martial Arts Institute's curriculum and is currently working on her third-degree black belt with Masters Reneé and Jeff Battenberg of Houston.
"Amber might be young and small in stature, but she possesses the ability of a true warrior," Reneé Battenberg said.
The champ uses lessons learned from both winning and losing when teaching students the fundamentals of this ancient art.
"It's OK to make mistakes, but I absolutely expect people to give it their best try," LaValley said. "If one thing doesn't work, try something else."
Martial arts classes are often associated with children, but many of LaValley's students are adults, some in law enforcement.
"Amber has unlimited patience, and whether it's a scared little 4-year-old or a sharp, middle-aged person, she spends as much time as it takes to help them improve," Master Jim Hare said. "There are a lot of excellent martial artists, but she is among the few who can teach it as well."
Nadine Dewbre of Purcell and her son Andrew signed up for the academy's family program.
"Andrew has just blossomed since starting taekwondo. He has done better in school, and it has done wonders for his self-esteem," Dewbre said. "I'm an older parent, and anytime there's something we can do together, I like that. We've had a ball, but it's not nearly easy as it looks."
LaValley emphasizes other benefits of martial arts besides enhanced hand-and-eye coordination, fitness and stress relief.
"It's a creative outlet and helps people focus on other aspects of their lives," she said. "You learn to know yourself better." "Doug Hill