Ryan Pinkston loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, those cartoon superheroes who surfaced on television in the late 1980s. At 4, he scooted around, emulating the Turtles' karate chops, leaping at imaginary foes, and delivering yells and grunts intended to scare bad guys.
"He'd imitate them all the time. He was always talking about karate," said his mother, Linda Pinkston.
Catering to this passion, she and husband, Mark, let Ryan, now 12, try a few lessons at a Laurel-area karate school with a friend's daughter.
As a result, the Pinkstons, who operate a Silver Spring computer graphics business and live in Highland, are consumed by martial arts.
"I can't even remember life before karate," Mrs. Pinkston said. Both Ryan and his brother Aaron, 17, are "world-ranked" youth competitors by the Minnesota-based North American Sport Karate Association, probably the oldest of numerous U.S. martial arts organizations that claim national or world stature.
Each boy has been top-ranked in one or more competitive divisions in recent months, status that rises and falls according to tournament participation within age-group brackets that pit each against as many as 50 competitors.
The Pinkstons spent last weekend in Louisville, Ky., for a NASKA-affiliated tournament with about 5,000 competitors of all ages. Since January, the boys have competed in New York City, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tenn., Boston and several mid-Atlantic events. National-level events will take them later this year to Orlando, Fla., Phoenix, Atlanta and Minneapolis.
Year-round, the boys train weekly in wu shu, or kung fu, a flowing, "soft" (no breaking of boards or bricks; no yelling) Chinese discipline, with Baltimorean Willie "The Bam" Johnson in Laurel.
Daily, moving furniture back in an ample family room at home, they perfect "harder" (meaning sharper, more aggressively combative) moves they use in competition, sometimes studying videotapes to analyze technique. Both hold first-degree black belts in wu shu, reward for a years-long process that in addition to precise execution of many complicated skills, involves dietary and other training strictures.
The belts, though not universally recognized or even used as a ranking system within some of the martial arts, nevertheless reflect the boys' skills.
Dennis Brown, a martial arts "master" who for 30-plus years has been a former world karate champion, Washington-area studio owner and tournament promoter, NASKA director and judge, says: "They've only been on the circuit a short time, but they have talent, and they're competitive. They're getting a name for themselves."
The boys compete with a national-level team based on Long Island, N.Y. Last year, Ryan asked an older athlete, also top-ranked, Anthony Atkins, 19, of Decatur, Ala., to pair with him in a new competition that emphasizes synchronized movements. Together, they are perfecting eye-grabbing routines, one that includes a startling flip of Ryan by his head-taller partner.
Extroverted Ryan, a seventh-grader at Fulton's Lime Kiln Middle School who also plays spring and fall soccer and says he wants to be a movie star, feels drawn to such flashy forms, some choreographed to music.
"I like the challenges," he said, reflecting a mental dimension the sport stresses. "Sometimes you want to quit, but you have goals in life, and you just have to deal with the challenges."
Aaron, who is quieter, prefers stricter traditional routines rooted in China long before the birth of Christ. The River Hill High senior, who got caught up in martial arts after watching several of Ryan's earliest lessons, sometimes wins applause for a strikingly classic and difficult pose he performs quite low to the floor and calls "the stance."
He was judged best overall performer, of any age, in a Baltimore competition last year.