In the last year, Jason Sasser has forward punched, pull-struck and hammer-handed a course halfway to his lifelong dream of a black belt in martial arts.
And the fact that he’s doing it all from the seat of his wheelchair isn’t lost on him.
Jason Sasser punches forward with his taekwondo green belt wrapped around his wrist. Sasser, who has spastic cerebral palsy, has dreamed for most of his life of achieving a martial arts black belt. Now, at 45, he’s halfway there after a year of studying with instructor Holly Hardin of Memphis. (VERSHAL HOGAN/News Observer
“I never thought I would be doing the things that I am doing,” he said. “I dreamed of doing it, but I never thought I would see it come to fruition.”
Approximately a year ago, Sasser started training with Taekwondo instructor Holly Hardin of Memphis.
In Taekwondo, experience is ranked by the colored belts students wear. While in many ways he was still a novice in the discipline, Sasser had already moved from the first level, a white belt, to the second level — a yellow belt — with another teacher. Now, after several sessions with Hardin, who travels to Crossett to teach Sasser every three months, he’s achieved a green belt.
“He is halfway to the lowest level black belt,” Hardin said.
A black belt doesn’t signify that a practitioner has reached the final stages of expertise, but it serves as a marker that they have mastered the basics of the discipline.
Sasser can trace his desire to be involved with martial arts back 32 years, when as a 13-year-old he saw a contestant in the Miss America pageant demonstrate how to break a brick with a kick on television.
Sasser has spastic cerebral palsy, the result of a traumatic birth injury that cut off oxygen to his brain and damaged his ability to control motor functions. He told his mother, who was watching the program with him, that he wanted to be able to move like the woman on television. Through the years, Sasser has had a number of surgeries and physical therapies to help with his mobility, but he still has significant impairment on his left side.
He went to school, graduated college and worked, but the dream of martial arts never left the back — and sometimes foreground — of his mind. Sasser found a teacher from Florida who would travel to Crossett to help him pursue the dream, but eventually she had to stop, though not before she was able to gain enough experience with him to develop a system of martial arts for people with disabilities called “Handicapable Karate.”
Taekwondo instructor Holly Hardin, left, holds a pad while Jason Sasser strikes it during a demonstration at the Wiggins’ Cabin Festival in October. That weekend, Sasser tested for and received his green belt. Below, Ann Reinke of Branson and Sasser demonstrate taekwondo at the Wiggins’ Cabin Festival in October. (VERSHAL HOGAN/News Observer)
After years more of searching off and on — and being told “no” by instructors unclear on how they could work with his disability more than once — Sasser was able to connect with Hardin, who had experience working with people referred to her taekwondo school by a physical therapy clinic. She also came into the experience with a different perspective than many — her father is a black belt who, because of a childhood polio infection, only has the use of one arm.
Hardin and Sasser’s first meeting in December 2016 culminated, after two days of workouts and training, with Sasser breaking a board using a knife hand strike.
Since then, the duo has continued the work, pushing through the exercises and tests needed to progress through the yellow belt level. Hardin visits for a few days at a time, while Sasser keeps up the conditioning between visits.
“I try to take what she gives me and use it when I can,” Sasser said. “It is always more motivating when your teacher is with you, but I am a self motivator. I only get to see Holly once every three months, and if I said, ‘I am going to wait until she comes,’ I am not going to do anything to improve.”
When he took the green belt test, Sasser had to study the philosophy and history behind taekwondo, but he also had to be able to free spar.
“I don’t know what Jason is capable of doing, so in a lot of ways, I treat him like any other student,” Hardin said. “Yellow belts don’t typically spar, but because of the limitations of his program, I thought it was important for him and his movement to be able to spar, to block the kicks and punches coming his way, so Jason is an early sparrer.”
While the starting point was always Sasser’s dream, the training has had other benefits.
“It has helped with my bloodflow, with my cardio,” he said. “My arms feel a lot more limber.”
After a good workout, Sasser is able to touch the back of his head, something he said he’s never been able to do.
As the story of Sasser’s efforts spread, so has the community that has worked to help — if not push — Sasser toward his goal. Hardin’s school has hosted fundraisers for Sasser’s training, selling shirts that say “I helped the ‘Sass Man’ get his black belt.” A GoFundMe account has stayed active throughout the process.
“People are really supportive,” Hardin said. “People in Crossett, in Memphis, one from Texas. I had a stranger give $5.”
The students at Hardin’s school have been particularly supportive. This fall, they hosted a kick-a-thon, in which they had people pledge to give a certain amount of money per kick they completed, as part of the project.
“One kid did 2,000 plus kicks,” Hardin said. “They had two hours to do kicks, and then they went out and collected money from their sponsors.”
As of last month, enough money had been raised to allow Hardin to continue traveling to Crossett for another year.
Sasser said he thinks of the students in Memphis, who he has not yet met, as little brothers and sisters. He keeps a canvas they sent him with handwritten messages on it in a window in his bedroom.
“I am kind of a big brother to these kids,” he said. “Having this relationship with them has kind of filled an emptiness in my life. Most guys my age are working, starting a family, raising some kids, so having these kids, who have accepted me with all my scars and warts and everything, has given me some of that.”
In June, Hardin was honored with an Arkansas Traveler designation, an honorary title given by the governor and secretary of state for actions individuals have taken that have made them goodwill ambassadors for the state.
During the ceremony, Sasser and Hardin did a demonstration of their work together. Afterward, some people who had expressed doubts about the endeavor came forward with their minds changed.
“So many people had heard him talk about martial arts for years, they rolled their eyes at it, saying, ‘You know it is a dream,’ but seeing him break that board that day was pretty potent,” Hardin said.
Keeping up the work
When Hardin traveled to Crossett to test Sasser for his green belt October, they set up a booth at the Wiggins’ Cabin Festival, doing demonstrations to show the public what the program is about. Their work has, in some ways, served as an ambassadorship between people with disabilities and the able-bodied.
“I am so grateful to Ashley County for believing in me and believing in Holly, in what she is doing, becuase a lot of eyes were opened up at the Wiggins’ Cabin Festival,” Sasser said. “They were very surprised that Holly made the effort to drive four-and-a-half hours from Memphis to work with me.”
Hardin said she’s glad to have partnered with Sasser, in part because of that ability to open people’s eyes.
“We are showing that someone like Jason can accomplish this, and I hope that seeing it inspires other people to do something similar as well,” she said.
But for the distance they’ve come, Sasser isn’t satisfied. He’s looking forward to that next belt, the next test. Blue, red and then — at last — black.
And he said that if he had to give someone following his story a piece of advice, it’s what he’s keeping in mind as he moves forward.
“There is no dream that is too big or too small, or no distance too far if you want it,” Sasser said.