It was a futile hope.
“Really, I just want people to look at me as a normal kid,” Malia Mize, a 16-year-old Ponitz High School junior and Golden Panthers basketball player said as she sat off to the side of the karate workouts going on at the Northwest Recreation Center at Princeton Park in West Dayton on Monday night.
She was responding – with reluctance – to a question about coping with the substantial hearing loss she’s had since birth and the small, new, state-of-the-art hearing aid she wears on her right ear.
But that device is barely noticeable and it – nor the deafness she’s long conquered – are not the reasons people don’t see her as a “normal kid.”
It’s everything else about her:
• You noticed it Monday night as she went through her Tang Soo Do karate drills alongside her S.W.A.T. (Special Winning Attitude Team) teammate, Sidnei Byrd, an 11-year-old Ascension School fifth grader.
One moment the pair was practicing high, one-legged kicks and the next they were performing intricate weapons drills, each masterfully wielding a sword she had pulled from a scabbard affixed to her side.
• You’ll see it, too, this weekend in Hanover, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore, when she and Sidnei are enshrined in the youth division of the International Hall of Honor/Hall of Champions, a karate hall of fame under the auspices of the USHOF Martial Arts Association International.
• And it’s been evident the past few months when the pair won a series of major tournaments on the NASKA World Tour, the sport’s biggest karate circuit. Both finished No. 1 in their age group divisions at events in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Maria also won the Amerikick Tournament in Philadelphia.
“The two of them has won over 200 trophies,” said Grandmaster Roger Haines, a retired, 29-year police officer and current defense tactics instructor, who started the S.W.A.T. Program with Steven Allen some 25 years ago and has turned it into not only a mainstay program of the City of Dayton Recreation Department, but a much-heralded competitive unit on the national scene.
Malia, who now wears a red belt with a stripe, again will eclipse her “normal kid” wish when she tests for her black belt on December 19. By then she will be into her basketball season as a 5-foot-3 point guard on the Ponitz JV. She’s also a stellar student – “All A’s and just one B” her dad, Malik, said – and then there are her future dreams.
She said she likes being on stage and after graduation hopes to get into theater and especially dance:
“I love moving to the beat. The music is so loud that even if my hearing aid is off, I still feel the music and feel that beat through my body.”
Sidnei is five years younger and when she first came into the gym as a 5-year-old, Malia already was a budding star.
“Malia took her under her wing and she learned a lot from her,” Bernadette Byrd, Sidnei’s mom, said. “She really helped her.”
Sidnei agreed: “When I first started, I used to watch Malia. I looked up to her and wanted to be just like her.”
In many ways she is.
She’s not a “normal kid” either:
When she’s at Ascension, her Catholic school in Kettering, Sidnei is known as Charlee. Her full name is Sidnei Charlee Byrd – the first and middle names a respelled nod to the first names of her two grandfathers.
As Charlee, she plays alto saxophone in the Ascension band and sings in the chorus. She also loves gymnastics.
And she, too, is a dancer. For the past two years, she’s been part of the storied Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC), where she said she does “modern dance and a little hip hop and jazz.”
The thing that most turns heads though, said Bernadette, is her daughter’s martial arts:
“When other parents hear that she’s a ‘Karate Kid,’ as we call it, they’re excited. Their eyes get big. You don’t see that many girls taking karate.”
At least not ones who are Hall of Famers.
A different outlook
Malia said she and Sidnei aren’t that much alike outside of karate. And it doesn’t have as much to do with age difference as it does outlook:
“I’m not the girlie girl type. I’m more friends with guys because I’m a tomboy.
“I’m not like ‘Oh, I like my nails like this. I want my hair like that!’ I’m not like that, not like Sidnei is.”
Sidnei laughed: “I am a girlie girl. I like to be wearing earrings and have polished nails and my hair a certain way. I like all those things.”
And yet Monday night, as you talked to the bare-footed Malia, you noticed the faded red polish on her toe nails and the round, golden earrings in each lobe.
“The nail polish is left from homecoming,” she shrugged. “And the earrings are my mom’s idea. She always says, ‘Make sure you wear some earrings.’
“I’m trying to work myself into being a little more girlie girl. I guess I can be a tomboy and girlie girl at the same time. I mean, I do go to the mall.”
On the defense
Haines first started with the sport as a teenager at Roth High in the 1960s.
He eventually taught karate and then, for nearly three decades, was a police officer in the Woodlawn section of Cincinnati, just northwest of Lincoln Heights.
He now instructs people, mostly police officers he said, in defense tactics, does Alice (active shooter) training and does rape prevention and awareness instruction. While most of his classes are in Cincinnati, he does do a self-defense and anti-bullying program for youth at the Dayton Kroc Center some weekday evenings.
The S.W.A.T. karate program, which he’s run since the early 1990s, especially benefits young girls, he said:
“It empowers them. It builds self-esteem and self-confidence.”
Bernadette said Sidnei certainly have gotten something from the program:
“It’s been amazing for her. It keeps her disciplined and on task.”
Malik Mize said the same thing about Malia: “It’s taught her discipline and built her confidence.”
She’s had to overcome hearing problems – the cochlea that include the nerve endings necessary for hearing weren’t fully formed in her ears at her birth and that left her deaf in her left ear and with just 50 percent hearing in her right.
She is adept as sign language, reads lips well and just got an advanced hearing aid that you don’t notice, in part, because of the stylish, red-framed glasses she wears.
The aid hooks up to Bluetooth and she now hears her phone calls coming out of her hearing aid rather than needing to press her phone to her ear.
“I never really bring any of this up unless someone asks,” she shrugged.
What people ask about most is her karate, especially some of the boys in school.
“Yeah, they say they want to try me,” she smiled. “They say, ‘Let me see you fight me.’ And I’m like, ‘Boy! …. Get outta here!’ ”
She started to laugh: “But they’re cool. They know not to mess with me.”
They know she’s no “normal kid.”