Article (courtesy of the Olympian)
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Blindness doesn't take fight out of martial
Fort Lewis contractor lost sight in 1990
Venice Buhain, The Olympian
LACEY - Robert Ott of Lacey, dressed in a martial
arts uniform and dark wrap-around sunglasses, towered in front of
the four 8-year-old soccer players in bare and sock feet in his
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"Who knows how to make a fist?" he asked in his East
Coast accent that falls somewhere between the voices of Harvey Keitel
and Robert De Niro.
Each of the girls balled her right hand and watched him expectantly
during a one-day self-defense session that would include learning
how to punch and how to get away.
Ott got down to his knees and reached toward the nearest student.
"You gotta keep your wrist straight," he said, positioning
her fingers and thumb by feel before spinning her around to demonstrate
to the others.
Ott hopes the girls with Lakewood's Blast Soccer Team never need
to use those lessons.
But if they take one thing out of the afternoon, he said, it might
be that a blind man taught them how to fight back.
"They will learn that even if you have an issue, and a disability,
you can move on in life," Ott said.
A bullet to the head failed to end Ott's life 16 years ago. It
didn't stop his entrepreneurial energy, either.
A native of New Jersey, Ott, 37, is owner and operator of Certain
Victory Food Services, which runs cafeteria services at the Fort
Lewis Army Base.
Ott oversees hundreds of employees, depending on how many soldiers
are stationed at the base. About 23 percent of the employees have
a disability, he said.
"I want to increase it," he added.
He recently wrote a memoir of his life - to be out soon in hardcover
and audio book - and finished construction of the Temple of Certain
Victory, a semiprivate martial arts studio in his Lacey home, where
he teaches selected clients Kidokwan, a martial arts system that
he developed from different Korean styles and his own experience
since becoming blind.
Ott was a 21-year-old martial arts studio owner and instructor
when his plans were derailed by a gunman in 1990. Ott said that
he was defending himself and defeated another man at a bar in New
Jersey. The man got upset and retaliated by shooting Ott over near
The bullet damaged the nerves of his left eye and obliterated his
right eye, leaving him blind at age 21.
For the first few months after surviving the bullet, he was afraid
to leave his mother's home, but friends and teachers encouraged
him to return to martial arts. He had to make his own way when it
came to adapting martial arts for the blind.
"They were all very encouraging, but nobody knew what to do,"
Ott's system relies heavily on direct and indirect touch to detect
one's position and distance in relation to the other fighter. He
calls it "touch on touch" and "black on black."
"If you put your hand close to me, I know where your arm is,
and I know where the rest of your body is," he said. "I
can learn to see again."
Three years after being shot, Ott headed to Washington "with
$500 and a gym bag" for the opportunity to run and operate
a cafeteria, he said.
Ott became a subcontractor for the Washington Department of Services
for the Blind, which contracts for food services at different public
agencies statewide through its Business Enterprise Program, program
manager Jeanne Gallo said. Today, Ott is one of 18 visually impaired
entrepreneurs who run about 22 food service locations throughout
the state, she said.
He ran the Modern Day Cafe in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration in Seattle. One repeat customer was particularly
insistent that he return to teaching his martial art, Ott said.
It started with one self-defense workshop, and as people started
to hear about the blind martial arts instructor, that aspect of
his business grew, he said.
"I've done 135 events and workshops with companies and schools,"
he said. "Each time I did it, I was realizing how much medicine
this was for me. I could share my experience, knowledge and wisdom
"I'm thankful every day that I have a life and a purpose,"
Ott said. "That man who shot me, he left me without sight.
But I could have found myself without a purpose, and that's worse."
The self-defense workshop for the soccer team is one way he tries
to spread his message. Last week, he spoke to the Department of
Labor and Industries, and he mentors younger blind people.
"I mainly work with people who have become blind suddenly
because of trauma, because of what happened to me," Ott said.
Kidokwan student Steve Matthewson, who last week became the first
black belt to study under Ott, said he wanted to study under Ott
because of the combination of his story, personality and his martial
"This is someone who not only got a grasp of the Korean martial
arts but he also invented a martial art that is a combination of
many different styles," said Matthewson, a chiropractor from
Carnation. "He's taken everything I've wanted to learn about
martial arts. He taught you to put it into your own thing and create
your own martial art," Matthewson said.
Business: Owner of Certain Victory Food Services, which operates
cafeterias for soliders at Fort Lewis; and a cafeteria in the Department
of Social and Health Services
Family: Wife, Kimberly, and daughter, Savannah, 4.