Nathan Thorn, at 33, is one of the youngest athletes to earn a seventh-degree black belt. He earned his first-degree black belt at age 12.

Mark Hvidsten, Star Tribune

A karate kid in Woodbury grows up

  • Article by: NANCY CROTTI
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2012 - 10:47 PM

In 1987, Nathan Thorn, then 8 years old, was growing up in Woodbury and struggling in school with attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD).

His teachers recommended medication, but it didn't do the trick. "The Karate Kid" and Chuck Norris movies did a much better job.

Thorn watched them and realized he wanted to be like them. Now he is.

Thorn, 33, recently received his seventh-degree black belt at a ceremony at Stillwater Area High School, making him one of the youngest people to achieve the ranking.

"It was really awesome to watch them move their bodies that fast," said Thorn of movie stars Norris and Ralph Macchio. "It was the athletic ability of the martial artists that was attractive."

Thorn's parents figured that learning martial arts might help him. His aunt clipped a newspaper coupon for a two free classes at a Maplewood karate school, and a new karate kid was on his way.

Thorn began learning a mixture of martial arts that gave him discipline and focus, and enabled him to stop taking Ritalin. His grades soared. Thorn took two or three karate classes a week and quickly moved up to five.

"I've been training in a karate school literally five days a week for 25 years," he said. "I've come to think of the karate school as home."

Now the owner of The Edge Martial Arts at 1654 Market Drive in Stillwater, Thorn received his latest award from one of his mentors, J. Pat Burleson, a karate master who traveled from Dallas to bestow the honor.

Thorn is among the third generation of American martial arts champions, said Burleson, one of the first American soldiers to bring the martial arts to the United States from Japan after World War II.

Burleson trained John and Pat Worley, both now ninth-degree black belt holders, who moved to Minnesota in the 1970s. John Worley co-founded National Karate Academy of Martial Arts, which now has 23 schools in Minnesota. Pat Worley co-founded USA Karate, which has six schools in the Twin Cities area.

"Out of their schools they produced Nathan Thorn. Nathan was just phenomenal in competition," Burleson said. "In the many years he's been competing, as a small child and now as an adult, he's still in world championship events."

Thorn is also carrying on an American martial arts tradition that teaches discipline and citizenship rather than violence, Burleson said.

"Nathan is kind of a torchbearer of sorts, and he is developing people who are moving up under him to do the same thing," he said.

Studying at National Karate in Stillwater, Thorn earned his first black belt at age 12. Children's classes became too easy, so Thorn moved up to adult classes.

In 1999, Thorn was working long hours opening stores for Pizza Hut when he decided to dedicate his work life to the martial arts. He began teaching at and running a karate school.

Two years later, he opened The Edge, where he and four other instructors teach a mixture of martial arts, including kung fu, karate, Kenpo, judo and jujitsu to 165 students ranging in age from 4 to 70.

The first-level black belt goes to those who have not only mastered the basic kicks, punches and blocks, but have also displayed the discipline and respect associated with the martial arts, Thorn said.

"Every level is either a higher understanding or physical ability," he said.

Leading by example

To reach the higher levels -- there are 10 -- someone must give back to the martial arts by competing or teaching professionally and demonstrating the breadth of his or her influence on the sport. Thorn helps Burleson run the World Martial Arts Ranking Association and develops curricula.

He has competed in numerous tournaments throughout North America and entered four national tournaments this year, including the Diamond Nationals held two weeks ago in Bloomington. His website,, includes a long list of his championship wins.

Thorn believes in leading by example, loves to set goals, and loves to watch his students do the same.

Tom Forster, a Macalester College sophomore and third-degree black belt holder, came up under Thorn's tutelage, teaches for him and still takes classes frequently.

"The discipline and respect that I've gained from his teaching I relate to all aspects of my life," Forster said.

Stillwater resident and fellow Edge teacher Michael Schafer admires Thorn's teaching style.

"He gives them an opportunity to do things to make them proud," said Schafer, 49. "For a 4-year-old kid, that's an accomplishment."

Not every student dedicates his or her life to the martial arts, but that's not the point.

"It feels great to know that I was able to accomplish something that almost no one else will be able to do," Thorn said. "We can't expect everyone to become a master level in karate, but we can expect them to go on and expect them to master whatever they do in life."

Nancy Crotti is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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