When senior Cameron Hopkins enrolled in a one-credit kung fu course this spring, he was just hoping to learn some self-defense.
The course, taught by 37-year martial arts veteran Ron Wheeler, focuses on a style of martial arts characterized by low, wide stances and swift punches called Jow Ga Kung Fu.
For many of Wheeler’s nearly two dozen students, including Hopkins, the two-hour-long sessions of unarmed sparring and forms are not enough: Groups head to Lerner Health and Wellness Center during the week to practice outside of class.
Hopkins said he became hooked on the art and Wheeler’s teaching style.
“He’s just really charismatic,” Hopkins said. “The class is a lot of fun, and the aggressive nature and efficiency of the style are great for anyone looking for or looking to build off a self-defense class.”
After practicing through injuries and surviving a rigorous boot camp, Hopkins and two of his fellow students, junior Anthony Contreras and senior David Kirk, made it to their first-ever kung fu tournament last month.
With a combined five medals, the three earned the moniker “Wheeler’s school of killers,” named after their professor who led them to victory.
No experience is required for students to join the course, but Wheeler said the class is not for everyone. He gives students a two-week grace period to try the class and drop it if they can’t keep up.
“There’s heavy training, heavy conditioning. I tell them, ‘This is as real as it gets,’” Wheeler, 48, said.
Students break into beginner, advanced and expert groups, with the professor spending the majority of his time with beginners, who can have a more difficult time learning the swift footwork and intricate kicking techniques.
Wheeler said his course includes about 80 percent of the material a student would learn in a year of professional training.
During drills to improve forms such as the Siu Fook Fu Kuen – Small Tiger – Wheeler tells stories about his past kung fu experiences. He took his first kung fu class at age 15 and became a certified martial arts instructor in 1990.
“I’d get up from where I was, put my hand on the ring, and do this flare,” Wheeler told his class as he lifted his leg and demonstrated jumping into a ring. “I’d show the judges I’m in command of this floor.”
The entire tournament, hosted by the Seven Star Praying Mantis Master martial arts organization in Northeast D.C., began with a traditional Chinese Lion Dance: Two people wore a giant lion costume with one person in the head and the other in the tail.
“They opened it up with a good luck ceremony and you feed the lion,” Hopkins said. “It processed the food and it spits on you. However many pieces of lettuce you get is better luck.”
Over 40 entrants, ranging in age from college students to senior citizens, broke into divisions to compete in Praying Mantis, a style with both an unarmed hand-to-hand combat form and a sword form, as well as other unarmed sparring competitions. Hopkins was in a three-way tie for second place in forms and had to demonstrate his form again before winning the gold medal.
Contreras, who had no kung fu experience until he took the class last year, won first place in the men’s sparring heavy weight at the tournament.
“When the students came into the class with their medals, I could see the look on the other student’s faces,” Wheeler said.
“I told the guys who won: ‘Winning is kind of like being on drugs. It’s addictive.’ Once you win one medal, you want more, so they can’t wait for the next tournament.”
Wheeler came to GW in 2007 to teach cardio kickboxing classes, which drew more than 60 students, both beginners and advanced martial artists.
With interest in growing the courses, Wheeler will offer classes twice a week in a larger room next semester. Both classes have already reached maximum capacity.
“Being here at GW, I won’t be able to take any other sort of fitness classes outside of college, so it was something fun,” Contreras said. “Even if you only take it for one semester, I think its worth it to just say that I know a little bit of kung fu.”