Karate master makes the grade

RANK AND FILE—Soo Bahk Do Master Larry Drehs earned his 7th Dan in June, which consisted of eight grueling days of testing. He is receiving his certificate from his instructor, Master Fred Messersmith. (Courtesy photo)

By Gary Luster

Because they are held in such high regard in their particular style of martial arts, many might think those who achieve Master level status are at the pinnacle of their discipline and no longer require training, learning, or study. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The martial arts masters, like the students they teach, must constantly learn and grow. Master Larry Drehs of Gardena Soo Bahk Do knows that more than anyone, having early in June, at the age of 70, been awarded his 7th Degree Black Belt.

Above 3rd Degree Black Belt, all candidates for promotion must endure a grueling eight day testing cycle where they train for seven full days from sun up to sun down and then take their exam on the eighth day, Drehs said.

The test is held once a year at a different location. Drehs’ test took place in Orlando, Florida.

“You start at 7a.m. with stretching and meditation for 30 minutes then you break for breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.,” said Drehs. “Then you train from 8:30 a.m. until noon. Then you break for lunch from noon until 1:30 p.m. then you train until 5 p.m. then you break for dinner from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. Then you train until 10 p.m. Then on the 8th day, you do what’s called a presentation of the required forms called hyangs. At that point the cycle is over and it’s up to the technical advisory committee to evaluate the participants.”

Larry Dreh, who teaches Soo Bahk Do at Freeman Park in the city of Gardena, demonstrates power,
speed and technique at a community event. His Korean martial arts is part of the city of Gardena’s Recreation
Department fitness program. (Courtesy photo)

To prepare, Drehs started training 18 months before the test on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays for about four hours each day with his regular training partner of many years, Marcus Acosta, who was also testing for his 7th Degree Black Belt. In addition to Drehs and Acosta, there were seven other candidates also testing for their 7th degree belts. However, the other candidates were scattered across the country, so in order to get together with everyone, all nine candidates gathered via Zoom two to three days per week, practicing all of the requirements such as self-defense techniques, ground sparring, ground defenses, and hyangs.

“We really needed to [train via Zoom], to coordinate and orchestrate us demonstrating as one unit as nine people demonstrating together simultaneously.” Drehs said.

About six months prior to the promotion test, each candidate who is eligible to rank up must first pass a pre-test administered in their local studios. The pre-test contains all of the requirements of the level for which the candidate is testing so if the candidate doesn’t pass the pre-test, then that candidate will be barred from taking the actual test. The pre-test can only be taken once a year.

Once the eight-day promotion test is completed there is a one year period of reflection where the candidate responds to their performance and using critique notes from the evaluation committee, makes adjustments or corrections to their techniques.

Master Larry Dreh shows his power in breaking boards with his fist at a city of Gardena event. Dreh recently earned his 7th degree black belt. (Courtesy photo)

Drehs said Soo Bahk Do study is a major commitment of time and energy. He engages in some type of Soo Bahk Do routine at least once a day for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 90 minutes. But the commitment Drehs shows isn’t just about himself.

When he teaches at Gardena Soo Bahk Do (through the city of Gardena’s Recreation Department), he often doesn’t leave the studio at Thornburg Park until 9:30 p.m. and by the time he gets home it’s almost 10 p.m. Then he still has to eat dinner and take a shower.

He said that this doesn’t bother him because of his strong commitment to his students as well as to himself. In fact, Drehs said that between teaching and learning, he has a hard time deciding which is more fulfilling.

“I enjoy both so I can’t really say [I like] one over the other,” he said. “I enjoy training and working out and I enjoy promoting the art by teaching it through the [Gardena] Parks and Rec.”

Drehs said that one thing that makes dedicating himself to the art and to his students is the strong family support he has from his wife of 44 years and his two adult children, who trained with Drehs as kids.

“She [Drehs’ wife] knew what she was getting into because she watched me train three nights a week and enter events that required long weekends several times a year away from home,” he said.

Master John Ballard, who has been working with Drehs since 1985, described Drehs as totally dedicated to both his studio and the students.

“He is just the kindest guy with a heart of gold who cares about the studio and cares about trying to provide a service to the city of Gardena,” Ballard said.

In fact, Ballard went on to say that oftentimes the Soo Bahk Do studio comes across students who would love to continue training in Soo Bahk Do, but due to financial difficulties, are forced to put their training on pause. However, Ballard said that he and Drehs recognize how devastating dropping out can be for the student and so they very often work with the parents to come up with a plan that allows the student to continue training.

“We try to help keep kids off the streets that normally would end up on the streets just because their financial situation doesn’t allow them to continue training and we don’t want to see that happen,” Ballard said. “We’d rather they be in school than in the streets so we really try to help kids stay in the afterschool programs like Soo Bahk Do as opposed to the alternative.”

Drehs, a committed and serious teacher and student of Soo Bahk Do with decades of experience under his belt began his martial arts journey back in 1971, when he was just looking for a way to exercise that was more than just going to the gym to lift weights. It wasn’t until the father of a woman he was dating at the time brought him to his martial arts studio and changed Drehs’ life forever.

“I had no desire to really look into the martial arts,” Drehs said. “I just really liked working out every day and I just get bored with lifting weights and jogging and sit-ups and pushups then I saw the martial arts class and thought, ‘These guys are not only working physically, they’re also working mentally.’ That was kind of the tipping point.”

More than 50 years later, Drehs continues his Soo Bahk Do journey as well as helping the thousands of students he has taught over the years on their own journeys in the Korean martial art.

With a current roster of 60 students, Drehs has lots of future black belts and potential Soo Bahk Do masters who worked every day under his tutelage in hopes that one they will be able to test for their own 7th Degree Black Belt and beyond.

For more information on Gardena Soo Bahk Do, just visit their website at gardenasoobahkdo.com or call 310-293-8156 for information on rates and class schedules.

Karate master makes the grade