Every karate black belt is special.
Bella Rizzi’s is just a little more special than most.
Bella is a freshman with Down syndrome at Staples. Her parents raised her to know that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to.
For the past 6 years she’s studied at Kempo Academy of Martial Arts in the back of Compo Acres Shopping Center, between Soul Cycle and Chipotle. The instructors demanded the same from her as everyone else in the dojo.
At times — like everyone else — Bella got discouraged. Some of her classmates dropped out. Bella stuck it out.
She got through the tough times. She learned to work hard, and dream of earning that faraway black belt.
Many mornings before school, her parents — John and Markley — heard Bella hitting the punching bag.
Twelve belts precede the adult black belt. Each one presents its own unique difficulty. Bella earned all 12.
Last Sunday’s test was grueling. For over 3 hours Bella sparred, and recited more than 27 combinations of exercises.
The last hour took place outside, at Compo Beach. Three candidates performed their tests, wearing only their lightweight gi garments.
The wind blew. Most people watching were bundled up — or stayed in their cars.
To get to that point of karate, Bella had learned to block out all distractions, and focus only on the task at hand. She and the other 2 candidates had so much resolve, they did not feel the cold.
Bella was pushed to her limits. But that was not the first time. She’d been bloodied, humiliated, bruised and battered. Through it all, she never wavered from her goal.
On Sunday, Bella became an adult black belt. Fewer than 1% of all martial arts students attain that level.
She and the 2 other candidates — Max Bonehill and Kyle Ehrlich — had broad smiles. They’d created a bond that will last forever. And they’d made their dreams come true.
Bella is not finished with karate — not by a long shot. Recently, the dojo asked her to be a junior sensei. She is now teaching what she has learned.
Karate is a meritocracy. All students are respected for their rank. They wear their accomplishments on their belt. They don’t brag about it.
Bella is not a bragger anyway. But everyone in Westport should know about her remarkable accomplishment.
Actually, her accomplishments — plural. She has written and published a book, “Time Travel Girls,” about being open to new opportunities. She has modeled for Girl Scouts of America.
Bella is only in 9th grade. She has a long way to go, and much more to achieve.
But the next time you see her — at a Staples event, writing in the library or running at Wakeman — give her a high five.
No one in Westport deserves it more.