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Published: March 19, 2021

From Martial Arts to Chemistry Labs, UT Junior Finds Joy in Teaching

From the moment Mary Amato ’23 was born, she was immersed into the world of martial arts.

Her parents were both involved in the sport in Amato’s hometown of Naperville, IL, and when her mother found out she was pregnant, she was going to quit. However, her instructor, Sensei John Sharkey Jr., wouldn’t let that happen.

Mary Amato '23 in a karate stanceMary Amato ’23 has been involved in martial arts her whole life from competing internationally to working as an instructor. Photo courtesy of Amato

“He used to carry me around and teach the classes,” said Amato, who now studies under Sharkey. “I just love that so much, and I think it’s very obvious that that is a really big connecting factor I have with my instructor.”

Although Amato was never pressured to continue with the sport, growing up in Sharkey’s karate studio and making so many connections with students and instructors, Amato couldn’t imagine stepping away. As she advanced in the sport, she went on to compete in international competitions and perform across the globe, winning national titles every year she competed and achieving her first international rank at just 12 years old.

Today, Amato competes in several circuits including the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), the International Sport Karate and Kickboxing Association (ISKA) and the American Karate Association (AKA). She has won overall grands in various styles of martial arts at tournaments including Compete Nationals, Capitol Classics and Dixieland Nationals. In January 2020, Amato won the women’s overall forms at the 2020 AKA Warrior Cup.

Mary Amato in a karate stanceIn January 2020, Amato won the women’s overall forms division at the 2020 AKA Warrior Cup, the largest sport karate tournament. Photo courtesy of Amato

Amato is also involved in a traveling martial arts performance group known as Sideswipe that performs at military bases around the world. The group choreographs several styles of martial arts moves to create engaging productions. With Sideswipe, Amato has had the opportunity to travel to places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Yokosuka, Japan. 

“Looking back as an adult, I see my growth as an athlete and really how much I progressed,” said Amato. “But as a kid I always thought about how I could have done better and what I needed to train in order to win.”

Amato’s proudest accomplishment was winning her first adult title at the 2019 AKA Warrior Cup — the largest sport karate tournament — where she won the women’s overall forms division.

“My entire team, family and students were there,” said Amato. “That is so important to me — the way I felt their support, and we all shared the celebration.”

Now at UT, Amato’s competitive career has been on the back burner, as in-person competitions are on hold due to the pandemic. But she’s staying active in the world of martial arts as much as possible.  

She is the co-captain of Team AKA, a professional martial arts team hosted by the American Karate Association, and holds virtual group practices with team members. Amato is also one of the head instructors in various AKA camps, which take place in the summer and winter.

Every summer at Sharkey’s karate studio, AKA holds a 30-day martial arts boot camp open to all ages. Kids come in from all over the country — and even from Canada and the U.K. — to take part.

“Instead of really boring, grueling training, it’s really cool because it’s time to spend with your teammates, meet new martial artists and make those bonds,” said Amato, who has been an instructor at the camp since she was 17 and attended as a camper from ages 10 to 16.

Amato is also teaching students one-on-one virtually via FaceTime, Zoom and Skype.  

She is sharing her skills on UT’s campus as a group fitness instructor at the Fitness and Recreation Center. On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:30 a.m., Amato hosts a cardio kickboxing class. Due to COVID-19 guidelines, only 10 students can attend at a time, but that hasn’t affected Amato’s enjoyment teaching the classes. “It’s been really awesome,” seeing full classes nearly every time, she said.

Mary Amato portraitAt UT, Amato teaches kickboxing at the Fitness and Recreation Center, is a biology lab mentor and is working to establish the Advanced Chemistry Support Group, a club to offer support, guidance and study tips to other UT students in advanced courses such as organic chemistry and analytical chemistry. Photo courtesy of Amato

Amato is also working with some of her classmates to establish the Advanced Chemistry Support Group, a club to offer support, guidance and study tips to other UT students in advanced courses such as organic chemistry and analytical chemistry.

“Our goal is to be able to have official study sessions, be able to use resources like the library rooms (and) hopefully down the line we can work with the American Chemistry Society,” said Amato, a marine science-biology major. “We (hope) that it will increase everybody’s confidence levels through a community aspect rather than studying by themselves.”

Amato also works as a biology lab mentor, assisting other students both in and out of the classroom.

“Being a martial arts teacher has really shown me the passion I have for working with others and helping out as much as I can,” said Amato. “My (martial arts) instructor and I, we’re really close and he helped me realize that I want to go into education.”

Amato’s goal is to teach conservation and sustainable living to all ages in a hands-on setting, and she plans to attend graduate school for education following her undergraduate career at UT.

“For marine science, I am interested in environmental education,” said Amato. “It’s kind of a way to combine my love of teaching karate with marine biology because I would love to work in an unstructured classroom setting in an aquarium and do tours and teach education classes.”

Amato isn’t planning to end her involvement with martial arts any time soon.

“I will never stop being a martial artist. I’ll forever practice the sport physically and mentally,” said Amato. “Down the road in the far future I may not always be able to teach or practice all the time, but Sharkey’s will always be home.”

Story by Mallory Culhane '21, journalism major

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