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Busta’s Person of the Week: Winston-Salem’s Ricardo Rivera Jr. to compete in the martial arts AAU Junior Olympics

Busta’s Person of the Week: Winston-Salem’s Ricardo Rivera Jr. to compete in the martial arts AAU Junior Olympics
May 15
22:08 2024

By Busta Brown

Ten-year-old Ricardo Rivera Jr. was thriving in martial arts competitions. Then surgery caused him to sit out for nearly a year. He was heartbroken. He couldn’t play games with his cousins during family gatherings or walk on his own. It was a tough time for the 5th grader. But Ricardo, known as Junior to his family and friends, has the resilience and rigor of the gladiators that we see in movies. He’s a true warrior. Within months he was back competing and winning multiple gold medals. 

Watching the Junior Olympian reminded me of the old Bruce Lee movies. Like Lee, he’s small in stature, yet quick, strong, focused. He has the heart and courage of a lion. When Junior is competing, he’s in 100% beast mode. Yet, he’s shy and one of the sweetest and most humble kids I know. 

“When I watch Junior compete, I don’t even recognize him. He’s like two different people. He’s so serious, Dad! And I know Junior is not that serious,” joked my son, Nate. The two are cousins. 

Let’s get to know Ricardo Rivera Jr., the son of Karla and Ricardo Rivera Sr., and find out how martial arts helped him become an amazing son, student, friend, and a Junior Olympian. 

What inspired you to get into martial arts?

I remember watching the anime Dragon Ball Z with my dad when I was very little. My dad watched Dragon Ball when he was just a boy and he liked it so much he wanted us to watch it together. Dragon Ball is a Japanese anime that ran from 1984 to 1995. It tells the story of Goku, a boy who trains hard in martial arts and becomes the world martial arts champion. I enjoyed watching Goku fight in the martial arts tournament when he was just 10 years old, and I thought that was so cool.  

When I was eight years old, I told my mom I wanted to learn karate and I started classes at Japan Shudokan Budo-Kai with Sensei Steven Hewett in King, North Carolina. Sensei not only teaches but he competes and judges at some competitions. He has won many medals himself and just made the AAU-USA National Karate Team for the WUKF World Karate Championship in Mexico.

Take us on your amazing journey to the AAU Junior Olympics.

My first tournament was in March 2023 as a white belt. I competed in the AAU N.C. State Karate Championship. I was very nervous because I had only been doing karate for nine months. I won a gold medal in Kobudo (weapon martial arts) and silver in Kata (Kata is a Japanese word meaning form). I was very excited and surprised because I competed against kids who had more experience and I won. I then competed in the AAU South Carolina District Championship in April 2023 and won gold in Kobudo and gold in Kata. Sadly, I had to have surgery a few months after that, and I was out of competitions and karate for the rest of the year. 

I returned to karate in January of this year. In March of this year, I competed again in the AAU N.C. State Karate Championship as a green belt and won gold in Kobudo. I was a little sad because I only won one medal. My parents said I should be very proud. I had only been back for three months and if I wanted to win more medals, I needed to work harder. I was competing against green belts now and they had more experience. I had only been a green belt for one month.  

I went on to compete in the AAU Karate South Carolina State Championship and National Qualifier in April and again won gold in Kabudo. I was happy I was going to get to go to the regional championship, but I wanted to do better, I wanted to beat my scores. In April at the AAU Karate Super Regional Championship in Charlotte I won three medals: gold in Kobudo, gold in Empty Hand, and bronze in Kimite. Everyone was very proud I won a medal in every competition. My sensei looked at me and said, we are going to turn this bronze to gold, and gave me a hug. Now Junior Olympics, here I come! The Junior Olympics are July 27-28 at the Greensboro Coliseum.

If you win, where do you go from there?

I don’t know. I guess I will continue to work hard and hopefully get to go again next year.

The Junior Olympics is a major accomplishment! What role did family support play in your success?

When I returned to my dojo in January, I fell behind. Other kids that had started with me had moved up and were now yellow and purple belts and I was still a white belt. I told my mom I wanted to quit. My mom said, give me two months of hard work. I know how much you love karate and I know you will again once you get your groove back. If after that time you want to quit, I will sign you out no questions asked. I thought about my dojo’s motto: It’s not about being better than someone else, it’s about being better than you were the day before. I promised my mom I would work hard and let her know my decision after two months. Three weeks after that I earned my yellow belt and told my mom to forget it, I’m not quitting. Last week I earned my purple belt.

Everyone in my family motivates me and supports me. My sister Kayse drives me to practice Tuesday and Thursday. She waits for an hour in the dojo while I finish class. My father helps me train at home and reminds me to practice every day. My mom works with sensei to register me for the competitions, gets to our hotel, and has all my gear clean and ready for every competition.

Take us through one of your preparation days.

Before a competition sensei offers extra training that week. The day before I train for one to two hours, get a good night’s sleep, then get up early and warm up with a sensei before competition.

Share with us how you motivate yourself on days you’re not in the mood to practice, do your homework and chores.

My sensei says a black belt is a white belt that never gives up. I remember this when I am not in the mood to practice. Sometimes I am very tired, but I want to be a black belt. When I don’t want to do my homework, I close my eyes and imagine myself getting a scholarship to college. I want to be a lawyer and my mother says if I work hard, I can get a scholarship like my sister and go to law school. I hate doing chores, but when my mom threatens to take away my PS5 I get motivated.

What are one or two funny moments that have happened during one of your competitions?

This is funny now; it was not funny when it happened. At my competition in South Carolina earlier this year, I was called to receive a bronze medal, which is 3rd place. I was happy because I thought at least I won; every competition is harder and harder. As the judge was putting the metal around my neck, another judge came up and whispered something in his ear. He looked at me, took the bronze medal off, and said I’m sorry, Ricardo Rivera, 1st place gold medal. He accidentally gave me the wrong medal! 

What other activities or sports are you involved in?

I am in my school’s marching band. We do parades and competitions, too. I won gold for suspended symbols in our competition at Carowinds earlier this month. I also play soccer in the spring and summer. I have won a few medals and a trophy with my soccer team.

What challenges have martial arts helped you overcome?

Last year a few days before my South Carolina competition, I got a very bad pain in my stomach. It was very bad; I could barely walk. Everything was ready to go to South Carolina, so the day before the competition my parents asked if I still wanted to go even if I couldn’t compete. I told them yes, so we drove to South Carlina. My sensei saw me that evening and said if you are in too much pain it’s OK  not to compete, we don’t want you to injure yourself. In the morning, I was in pain. I was limping and my parents said it’s up to you, you don’t have to compete. It’s your choice. I remembered a story my father told me about a soccer championship he won playing with one good leg because he had gotten injured during the first half. How he stood in front of his goal with his leg bandaged up and still managed to stop the other team from scoring. I thought I was my father’s son, and I can do this. I decided to compete and won two gold medals in that competition. This showed me I can do anything I put my mind to.  

Why would you recommend other youths getting into martial arts?

It helps you focus and be patient because you must be very focused when you are working on your Kata or learning a new weapon, and sensi makes you do it over and over until you get it right. It makes you feel good and powerful. 

What have your parents instilled in you that helped you become the amazing son and student you are today?

Always to be kind and respectful to anyone you meet. If there is a new kid in school, make them feel welcome and talk to them even if no one else does.

What are the top three things you like most about yourself?  

My dedication to school and in life and I work hard to accomplish my goals. I am also pretty funny.  

My phenomenal Person of the Week is Ricardo Rivera Jr. 



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