Sal Convento is chief instructor and owner of the United States Karate Academy in Point Loma (uskasandiego.com). He’s single, 36 years old, a third-degree black belt, and world champion. I don’t find any of that particularly unusual. What is unusual is how he got here.
During a telephone conversation, Convento tells me he has 161 students. Among them are “Tiny Tigers,” three- and four-year-old kids. I ask, “How do you teach a three-year-old kid?”
Convento says, “A three-year-old kid is all about having fun. We do sparring. It’s like flag football: we put belts on the side of their belts and kids pull out as many belts as fast as possible. Whoever gets all the belts out fastest wins. I have Tiny Tiger names for them, like this kid is Raging Bull and this kid is Superman and this kid is Batman. We put on music and announce their names like in a UFC fight. They love it.”
“How many sessions a week for a typical student?”
“Depends on the program,” Convento says. “Twice a week for the basic program. Leadership program has an unlimited number of classes. The Executive Black Belt program is tailored to the individual, with private lessons structured to get them a black belt in 21 months.”
Convento also offers Boot Camp San Diego. One class runs from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., Monday through Friday. Participants meet at the downtown convention center, warm up, jump rope, stretch, run, stair climb, “push-ups, pull-ups, medicine-ball workouts, abdominal workouts, and an array of body-weight exercises.” This is followed by a reading circle, affirmations, mentoring…is it 7:00 a.m. yet?
I ask, “How many hours a day do you work?”
Convento laughs, “I start at six in the morning. After that, I’m teaching gold-medal training for our championships [World Tang Soo Do Karate Championships] — I weight-lift with those guys. Then I’ll eat breakfast, and we’ll do some sort of a reading. Then, I’m at the academy by 10:00 and work until 8:30.”
“You’re not married, obviously.”
“I have a serious girlfriend,” Convento says. “She’s done one or two boot-camp sessions with me, and she likes it.”
“How did you find karate?”
“My brother wanted to do martial arts. We were living in Philadelphia. I began karate [at the Shin Karate Institute] when I was 13, started assisting in class a year later, got my black belt, and taught adult classes.
“I came from the Philippines [Convento arrived in New York during the spring of 1981]. I have six brothers and six sisters. I am the youngest. In the Philippines, we weren’t rich and we weren’t poor. We had a little land that had mango trees and coconut trees. My mom and dad worked in factories. When we came here we were not even middle class. My mom and dad couldn’t work anymore and couldn’t afford to send me to college.
“In the ninth grade, I saw a program on Good Morning America that talked about the Naval Academy and how it’s this prestigious college and it’s free once you’re in as long as you serve in the military. So, it was, Why don’t I serve my country, fly for the Navy, and get a great education?”
How did he do it? “I would think most kids — particularly the youngest of 13 children with elderly parents, immigrants all — wouldn’t know about the Naval Academy, or if that kid did know, would think, No way I can do that.”
“I did have help,” Convento says. “My counselor back in high school, he was, like, ‘Sal, you can’t go to that school. That school is tough. You’ve got to get a congressman, a senator, to nominate you. You’ve got to be really good, got to have a great SAT score.’
“But, I didn’t believe in any of that stuff. It was martial arts that made me say, ‘Hey, if I can become grand champion in forms and sparring, and my teachers and instructors believe I can be better than I think I can, then…”
“How long were you in the Navy?”
“From 1996 to 2006. I was a surface warfare officer.” (Convento took part in missions flying aboard an EP-3 Orion over Iraq and Afghanistan. He became a wing naval aviator in 2001.)
“What would you like to be doing five years from now?”
“I want to buy my own building, focus on martial arts with ancillary things like a weight-lifting facility, a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, massage place, an acupuncture place, a chiropractic place, all in one building. The intent is to make you as perfect a warrior as you can possibly be. Eventually I want to have multiple studios in Southern California and throughout the U.S.”