Students from an Ellicott City karate school encountered the biggest barrier imaginable -- fighting an undefeated team on their own turf -- while competing in their first tournament.
The local students lost the match against the Okinawa champions by only two points, but won fifth place in the world tournament in Japan in August.
For instructor Jim Lilley, the contest was a chance to renew his ties with the island expert who taught him traditional Japanese karate more than three decades ago, Takeshi Miyagi.
"Jim teaches in the traditional way. It's not Americanized at all," said Jody Tooky, a Howard County police officer who is a third-degree black belt and one of Mr. Lilley's students. "We have direct roots right to Okinawa. That's what makes this school special."
As owner of Shorin Ryu Karate Dojo in Ellicott City, Mr. Lilley -- the only American to receive a black belt from Mr. Miyagi -- teaches his students just as Mr. Miyagi taught him, he said.
When Mr. Lilley was stationed with the Marines in Okinawa, he took lessons from Mr. Miyagi. Now 60, Mr. Miyagi is considered a hero on the island because he is one of four ninth-degree -- one degree shy of perfection -- black belts in the kobayashi shorin ryu system of karate in the world.
The world tournament was held in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Mr. Miyagi's school in Okinawa. So when 11 of Mr. Lilley's students were asked to participate -- along with 64 teams from 25 countries -- in the tournament, he had no reservations about accepting the invitation.
"We train very seriously five or six days a week regardless of whether we go to competitions or not," said Mr. Lilley, 53, a Mount Airy resident.
After retiring from the Howard County Police Department in 1992 while a sergeant in the street drug division, Mr. Lilley opened his karate school. Mr. Miyagi attended the grand opening and used the opportunity to promote Mr. Lilley to a seventh-degree black belt.
Three years later, Mr. Lilley has about 80 students, the youngest 5 years old. To keep their learning experience authentic, he videotapes most sessions so he can send them to Mr. Miyagi every six to eight months.
Everything is done in a traditional manner at the school, from the wooden exercise floors to the way students must bow to their teacher to the strict rules Mr. Lilley enforces.
"If you're in trouble with the law or at school or at home, you're in trouble here," he said. "Precisely the way Mr. Miyagi taught me, I teach them."
The Howard County students were one of eight teams left when they had to compete against the Okinawan champions, who were undefeated in 110 competitions. "We came within two points of beating them," said Mr. Lilley, who served as a tournament judge.
The Okinawan team went on to win the entire tournament. Only two schools from the United States, besides Shorin Ryu, received awards.
For Kristin Demastus -- at 15, the youngest to compete from the United States -- the tournament was a rigorous test. She won her first round, but was eliminated in the next one.
"It was pretty hard going up against older people. I was a green belt going against black belts," said the karate practitioner of three years.
Pleased with her performance, Mr. Lilley promoted her to a brown belt -- a grade below black belt -- when they returned from the trip, Kristin said.
Her father, Glenn Demastus, accompanied the group to Okinawa. He joined Shorin Ryu when the group returned.
"Jim teaches in the true tradition of the martial arts," he said. "A lot of karate schools are just out there to get your money. It's not like that at all with Jim."