Ilyaz Mapara has been fighting since the day he was born, so it’s no surprise how well he has taken to taekwondo.
Ilyaz, now 16, was born more than three months premature, weighing only a pound. His father Riaz says there was little hope for him to survive, but survive he did.
“The morbidity rates are very high for children born that early,” he says. “Those that do live usually have major problems.”
While Ilyaz won that fight, every day can be a struggle for the Grade 11 student.
Ilyaz was diagnosed with autism soon after birth, and he suffers from a kidney disorder that saps his strength.
He is also completely blind.
However, that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his love of martial arts, and from earning his green belt in taekwondo.
Ilyaz is a common sight at Jeong’s Taekwondo Academy in Maple Ridge, where he trains. While his fellow martial artists perform drills with each other, Master Ki Jeong works specially with Ilyaz, who repeatedly strikes a heavy pad held by Jeong.
Ilyaz chases him across the room with a flurry of kicks. As Jeong moves, he calls out commands so Ilyaz can track his movements.
While Ilyaz may not have the physical strength and coordination of many of the other martial artists training at the school, few can compete with him in terms of enthusiasm.
“I’m no different,” says Ilyaz. “People might say, ‘Oh you poor little thing,’ but I’m no different.
“I’m Master Jeong’s student,” he adds, with no small amount of pride.
Despite his physical impediments, Ilyaz recently completed his green belt last month after more than a year and half of training. The belt is the third of 10 colour belts, each a step toward earning a black belt.
“Honestly, I didn’t think he’d get to green,” Riaz says. “But he’s very committed, and works very hard. We’re so proud of him.”
When Ilyaz first came to Jeong’s, we could barely do a single push-up.
“The movements were hard at first, but once you do it a million billion times, it’s automatic,” says Ilyaz. “I try to make the impossible possible.”
So much of the sport is visual, Riaz says, so it takes a very patient instructor to work with a blind athlete, not to mention an autistic one.
But for Jeong, training Ilyaz has been a joy.
“He’s always ready, he’s always positive,” says Jeong, a seventh dan taekwondo master from South Korea. “I love to challenge him, because, all the time, he wants more, more, more.”
Jeong’s other students love having Ilyaz around as well.
“Everyone knows Ilyaz, and we love having him here,” says Mya Pritchard, a second dan black belt who trains at the studio. “He’s an asset to us because of his enthusiasm.”
The progress his son has made since taking up taekwondo has surprised Riaz, and has improved almost every aspect of his life. As a result of the training, his sense of direction and awareness has greatly improved.
“When he first came here, he couldn’t even do one push-up,” says Riaz.
Most importantly, though, is that Ilyaz feels welcomed at the martial arts studio, and that camaraderie and support has helped Ilyaz become more confident, more disciplined and more focussed.
“The social structure at high school can be difficult-he doesn’t have a lot friends,” Riaz says. “But here he is totally comfortable.”
Ilyaz says he considers the studio to be his second home, and Master Jeong to be a second father.
“I do get frustrated a lot, but here I learn to be strong,” he says.
Ilyaz’s dream is to one day become a black belt. While that might not seem likely given his condition, Ilyaz takes great pleasure exceeding people’s expectations of him.
When he’s not in the martial arts studio, Ilyaz enjoys pursuing his other hobby, flying.
Ilyaz flies a small single-engine Cessna 172, with the help of a sighted co-pilot,
and can hold steady low-level flight, and execute banked turns.
Ilyaz has studied much of the theory of flight, but unsurprisingly, flight manual in braille have been hard to come by.
“One thing his autism allows him to do is to listen very intently and retain that information,” says Riaz.
The Mapara family are Ismaili muslims, and Ilyaz has proven himself to be exceptionally talented at reciting prayers and passages from the Qur’an in Arabic from memory.
“It’s remarkable,” says Riaz. “He’s even memorized the exact vocal inflections.”
He doubts Ilyaz would be able to perform such feats were he not autistic, and relied so heavily on his hearing as a result of his blindness.
“It is a gift and curse,” says Riaz.