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August 1, 2014

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Martial Arts:

Green Valley resident qualifies for National Team Fight-Off

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Stephen R. Sylvanie / Special to the Home News

Mario Harris, left, takes a swing at a kicking paddle held by Devin Neudeck during a practice session inside the Chuck Minker Sports Complex.

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Henderson martial artist Mario Harris, pictured during a practice session inside the Chuck Minker Sports Complex, recently qualified for USA Tae Kwon Do National Team Fight Off to be held this spring in Austin, Tex.

Click to enlarge photo

Tae Kwon Do instructor Terry Blackburn keeps a close eye on his students as they stretch out during the beginning of a practice session inside the Chuck Minker Sports Complex.

Training at Mount Charleston following the Las Vegas December snowstorm had a profound effect on Mario Harris.

The Green Valley resident drives to the mountain, about 30 miles northwest of Las Vegas, every weekend to train with the Two Dragons tae kwon do team. Running the trails with an extra layer of snow was a new challenge.

"We ran 100 yards from where we parked to the trail we were going to run and everyone was out of breath," Harris, 22, said.

Running through the snow was as much an exercise for the mind as it was for the body, and the last thought Harris had on his mind was to sit for a rest.

The training paid off at the USA Taekwondo National Team Qualifier in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Harris finished second in his bantamweight (less than 136.7 pounds) division on Jan. 11.

"We work hard everyday," he said. "You don't want to think that you can't do it. If you do that there is no reason to fight."

By finishing in the top four of his division, Harris qualified for the National Team Fight-Off on April 24 in Austin, Texas, to compete for a spot on the national team.

A strong performance in the tournament will be the first step toward his dream, to compete in the 2012 Olympics.

Harris has come a long way from his days at Bonanza, when he when he gave up tae kwon do training to focus on prep basketball.

After two years playing junior college hoops, he was urged to return to martial arts by his father, a tae kwon do black belt.

The six years away from sparring initially hurt Harris, but the athleticism he displayed on the basketball court came in handy on the mat.

"He is a very naturally gifted athlete," said Terry Blackburn, director of Two Dragons. "What ever he lacks in technique, he substitutes with athletic ability."

Harris won a small tournament in California in July 2005 and has been training with Blackburn ever since.

"I was tired and having a hard time fighting but I won," he said. "My feet were hurting and I was sore but that got the juices flowing."

Harris has had an edge training with fellow Two Dragons team members Aldo Rodriguez and Vladimir Sokolov who also qualified for the National Team Fight-Off in the bantamweight and lightweight (less than 158.7 pounds) divisions, respectively.

Rodriguez, a Rancho graduate, competed with Harris in the same division at the qualifier. After winning their first four bouts, the two met in the bantamweight finals, but instead of competing, Harris bowed out to his friend.

Blackburn, who coached the team in Colorado Springs, was impressed by their performance, but said the competition will be much strong in Austin.

"Anytime somebody goes up against a U.S. team member, they're going to be an underdog," he said. "The team members know exactly what those referees are looking for."

Sokolov, a Silverado graduate, won his four bouts in the qualifier convincingly, but will have to compete with Olympic gold medalist Steven López at the National Team Fight-Off.

López won the bronze in 2008 in the 176-pound class.

"I'm definitely stoked about it," he said. "He's the most known and the guy I'm going to have to train for. I can't wait to see exactly where I stand with him."

Sean Ammerman can be reached at 990-2661 or [email protected].

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