Playing With Pain | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Playing With Pain 

Katalin Rodriguez Zamiar has had multiple spinal injuries, but she's got multiple black belts to show for it.

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Katalin Rodriguez Zamiar is routinely punched, kicked, and thrown around, and sometimes the consequences are dire. Detailing a recent surgical procedure she underwent to repair structural damage to her spine, she was sanguine. "It was noninvasive laser surgery. They inserted some needles and a camera," she says. "I have a very high threshold for pain, and sometimes that works to my disadvantage."

Roughly two-thirds of Zamiar's life has been shaped by pain. Just learning the basics of karate--which she started studying at age nine at the Lehmann Sports Club in Lincoln Park--she broke her jaw and tailbone twice each. Now 31, she holds black belts in karate, tae kwon do, and kung fu. In 1994 her likeness was used as the basis for three separate ninja characters in the video game Mortal Kombat: Kitana, Mileena, and Jade. She has evolved from student to competitor to instructor and, more recently, entrepreneur: in March 2001 she opened her own training and workout space in the West Loop.

It requires a leap of faith to picture this friendly, petite woman--standing five foot three and weighing 112 pounds--delivering lethal force. She admits she has never used her skills outside of class or competition. "Once you learn martial arts, you have to respect the fact that even under the best of fighting circumstances, it is still very difficult to come out unharmed," she says. "You try to make sure you are never in that position."

She grew up on the near north side, near Chicago and Wells. Her father, Thomas Zamiar, is a painter and photographer who was also a two-time Golden Gloves boxing champion; her Cuban-born mother, Isis Rodriguez, who passed away five years ago, was passionate about boxing and baseball. Her parents directed her into ballet at an early age, and she danced in the Ruth Page Foundation's Nutcracker. Desperate to try something more exciting, Zamiar conspired with her mother to convince her father she was still attending dance classes while she took up karate instead.

Martial arts seemed like a natural path for Zamiar, who was already a fan of Bruce Lee and Felix Savon. "I was never a sad or aggressive kid," she says. "I just wanted to try [karate] on my own....My mother was an exile from Cuba who was kicked out for being too outspoken and opinionated. I was given a lot of her confidence."

Her ballet classes proved to be a good foundation for the balance and flexibility she needed in karate, and by the time she was in high school--she attended the Francis W. Parker School on a scholarship--Zamiar was competing in American Karate Association tournaments. That experience was not always good.

"There were very few other women," she says. "The culture was very patriarchal, and people were very patronizing. They questioned whether you were physically or mentally tough enough to endure the training." The women who did participate were often "from as far away as Kentucky or Minnesota," she says. "I rarely ran into women that I knew who were practicing martial arts."

She competed for four years, approximately 20 times a year, and it was in competition that she realized the commercial and professional possibilities of martial arts. But she was also interested in a career in forensic police work. While studying anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Zamiar immersed herself in tae kwon do, a fight program distinguished by its emphasis on kicking.

In the summer of 1993, between her junior and senior years, a talent scout saw her working out on the heavy bag at Lakeshore Athletic Club and tapped her for the Mortal Kombat job.

It wasn't until 1994, during her last semester, that the game's producers filmed her against a blue screen, compiling footage to be digitized later. During one full day of shooting and two pickup days, Zamiar befriended Ho-Sung Pak, a Korean actor and martial arts performer who was serving as the model for the character Liu Kang and had played Raphael in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. Under his guidance she studied kung fu. "Karate is more linear and hard, with more rigid movements," she says. "Kung fu tends to have softer and more circular movements....If you look at a lot of the classical kung fu, it is very similar to ballet."

Following graduation, she began work on her master's degree in criminal forensic science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She interned with the Naperville police forensics department and with the homicide research division of the Chicago Police Department. But she decided not to finish her degree. Though she found the intricacies of investigation fascinating, she feared the nature of the work would cause her to surrender some of her individuality. "I just did not think police work was as good emotionally," she says. "With fitness, it was a better lifestyle. It was healthier, you're interacting with a lot of people, meeting people and witnessing them change physically."

She got a job as a trainer at the East Bank Club, where she started a cardio kickboxing program. She wrote for boxing and martial arts magazines. She launched a video production business with Pak that put out several workout videos written and choreographed by Zamiar.

In 1995 she met Dino Spencer, the owner and operator of Iron Fist International in Lakeview, through Pak. A fifth-degree black belt in Shaolin kung fu, Spencer was a native north-sider who'd burned out on competition. "I found myself being a top-ten competitor but a number one coach," he says. "I found I reached a lot of my goals better through my students." In March Zamiar and Spencer opened Pow! Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness, Inc., in a 6,000-square-foot space at Morgan and Washington.

The building is large enough to both accommodate Pow!--which offers personal training as well as classes in kung fu, boxing, yoga, tai chi, Krav Maga ("the official hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli army"), wushu (the technique used in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and more--and serve as the headquarters for Katpak Productions, Pow! Activewear, and a lecture business that has taken Zamiar to more than 100 U.S. cities to speak on the subjects of fitness, yoga, and flexibility.

Until recently she was teaching 18 different classes a week, and she has attained such stature as an instructor that most of her students refer to her as sifu, or professor. Her approach to individual training--emphasizing flexibility, stability, and movement--works for radically different athletes. Last month she designed a workout program for Jerome Beasley--a six-ten basketball player for the University of North Dakota who's projected to be a first-round NBA draft choice--that included kickboxing, strength training, yoga, and ballet.

By her own admission Zamiar has always pushed herself as far as she could physically and keeps looking for new challenges. A couple of years ago she became infatuated with Brazilian jujitsu, a form of ground fighting roughly analogous to wrestling. She competed in a national tournament last November and was planning on returning to competition this fall when she began experiencing problems with her back. It turned out she had herniated four vertebrae, which in turn had caused nerve damage near her spine. She'd also fractured her sacrum. To repair the problems she would need three separate surgeries. She underwent the first in April.

In early June she had just had her third surgery, and she was moving gingerly. Though her doctor has told her to rest and recuperate, the thought of having to remain still does not sit well with her. "I always thought of myself as somebody five-eight, 140 pounds," she says. "Had I that kind of body I would probably have suffered a less severe setback. All the times I've sparred with people, lifted boxes by myself, maybe I would have done a little less damage. I think that's what I've recognized now. You learn that sometimes you need to take intermission and learn other ways to do things."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, courtesy Midway Games.

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