Most athletes don't take home trophies taller than they are. Ricardo Royal does.
The sport is karate and some of the trophies are 7 feet tall. Ricardo, a second-degree black belt, is 4 feet 4. He is also only ll years old.
Competing in more than 100 tournaments along the East Coast, Ricardo, who lives in Fort Washington, has become a regional karate champion (seven states), won the gold Wimbledon Cup and has been selected to compete in the children's karate division of the 1988 Olympic Games.
Although Ricardo was absent from several months of competition in 1985 because of heel injuries received playing at school, he has been named the top Pee Wee (10- to 12-year-olds) competitor of the year by U.S. and international tae kwon do associations and was recently recognized by several karate publications for accumulating the most competition points in his division for the year.
What prompted Ricardo, at age 6 1/2, to take up karate was intimidation. "I was the new kid on the block, and I was little," he said. "I decided I wanted to stick up for myself."
His mother, Grace, made the suggestion.
A white, yellow, green, blue, brown and black belt later, Ricardo studies tae kwon do, the Korean form of karate, under Steven Brown, master of the World Fighting Arts Karate Institute in Suitland. "Ricardo is one of the fastest learners -- faster than adults, faster than black belts," Brown said. "He'll take as much as you can give him."
Already proficient at some 44 new moves needed to earn a third-degree black belt, Ricardo cannot test for that degree for two years because of rules on minimal period of time between degrees. "It takes most students three months to master forms [a series of moves]. Ricardo learns them in about three or four weeks," said Brown, whom Ricardo has faced in competition.
Although Ricardo is recognized for how quickly he learns karate moves, he stands out for another reason. "He looks like a little adult when he competes; it's his maturity and very clean technique," said karate instructor and promoter Dennis Brown, who has judged the youngster in tournaments and has been ranked nationally in competition among adults.
Ricardo competes regularly against adults and children older and much larger than he. In loosely fitting black pants and a blouse-like top tied with a black belt and with "Ricardo" stitched on it, he is a confident competitor.
"I know that I'm a black belt and I have a technique that can take down people bigger than me," he says. This attitude helped him earn his 300th trophy several weeks ago -- a 7-footer -- for grand champion excellence.
"When I fight adults, I use their strengths against them. When I trip them, they fall harder," said Ricardo, who practices the sho kwon do ki style developed by Steven Brown -- a combination of two fighting systems that uses the chopping, Japanese hand techniques and the dynamic Korean kicks.
In tournaments, competitors are judged in three categories and awarded rating points. Winners at each level then go through a pyramid of competition, pairing off against the winners of more advanced divisions. The kumite, or sparring, category is one-on-one fighting, while kata, known as forms, is the category in which a competitor is judged on the execution of specific karate moves. Weapons, the third area, tests the martial artist's fighting technique using a weapon to ward off imaginary attackers.
Ricardo has chosen the samurai sword as his weapon because, he says, it's easier to defeat attackers with simple slicing motions. Recently, he captured his first 8-foot trophy as a grand champion in the weapons competition.
Although the sword is Ricardo's forte, Steven Brown says, "What's unique about Ricardo is that he excels in all three areas of competition. It's unusual to find someone so good in one category of competition, and it's rare to find someone good in two categories of competition. You almost never find someone who excels in all three."
Usually with video camera in hand, his father, Jim, has accompanied him to each tournament in which he has competed.
"Ricardo was learning so fast that we wanted to make sure he was doing his moves right," his mother said as she explains what prompted the investment in recording equipment -- just part of more than $2,500 in karate expenses over the last year.
"I'm known as the man with the video camera, and 80 percent of the time I'm mistaken as a black belt because I attend the tournaments so regularly," said his father.
As Ricardo watches himself on the big screen, he sees camera flashes and is shocked to learn someone has taken his picture. His concentration is so intense during competition that he notices nothing else.
That in itself is quite an accomplishment. "There's a great deal of pressure at these events -- TV cameras, schoolmates, parents and, if that doesn't get to you, the faces of the judges staring at you, saying, 'Mess up, kid, mess up,' will. They're looking for anything to mark you down," said Steven Brown.
Ricardo frequently practices "breaking blocks," punching his elbow into an inch-thick board that becomes two cleanly cut pieces. Brown explains: "Whatever he can do to that board, he can do to another person. The board is twice as hard as a human bone."