The Profiler: Martial artists Erik Lee and Sandra Carnero

The Profiler: Martial artists Erik Lee and Sandra Carnero

Janice Worthen
Sandra Carnero and Erik Lee

Sandra Carnero has been at Erik Lee's Alameda Martial Arts for 20 years, as student and teacher. Photo courtesy of Erik Lee.

When Erik Lee opened Alameda Martial Arts in 1994, the first student to walk through the door was 7-year-old Sandra Carnero. Lee said Carnero was shy but energetic, and would just dive into the assignments he gave her.

Two decades later, Carnero is still at the school – as a teacher.

“I’m amazed that it has never felt like I’ve been to the same class twice,” Carnero said.

Even while attending college, Carnero continued to teach at the school, a commitment that has endured beyond her 2009 graduation from San Francisco State University and earning her certified public accountant’s license, in 2013. In addition to teaching at the school, Carnero is an accountant for a San Francisco-based affordable housing nonprofit, and she plans to pursue a graduate degree.

Because Carnero commutes from Martinez to San Francisco for work, she doesn’t get to spend much time with Lee beyond the Wednesday class she helps teach. But she said that’s the time she looks forward to most each week.

Carnero developed many skills under Lee’s supervision over the years, especially in the traditional Korean form of martial arts called Kuk Sool Won. At the World Kuk Sool Association Tri-State Tournament in 2006, Carnero was the second-degree black belt grand champion, a title she earned by demonstrating her proficiency in forms, techniques, sparring, and board breaking, as well as her mastery of weapons like the sword and stick.

Lee’s school won first place for six years at the World Kuk Sool Association Tri-State Tournament before Lee decided to move away from competitions because he said they don’t suit everyone, and he wanted to focus more on recreational martial arts. Lee considers martial arts a form of personal expression; he likes to incorporate his own moves, and this was another reason he listed for moving away from a focus on Kuk Sool Won.

Lee now teaches a style he created and trademarked called LockBoxing, which he defines as a mixed martial arts that includes joint locks and kickboxing. Carnero teaches some of the traditional techniques, and Lee said she provides an overlap between the two approaches.

“You’ll always be learning something new because he’s always bringing new things in,” Carnero said.

When she started her training, Carnero said she never expected martial arts would become such a big part of her life. When she was young, she was excited by the belt system, but she grew to just enjoy the classes.

Carnero said she has often been surprised by her progress, especially after mastering moves she thought she would never be able to do “in a million years.” Even with the months and years of work it could take to perfect a skill, Carnero said she always enjoyed her training with Lee.

“He’s a creative teacher,” Carnero said. “Every class is unique.”

Lee said his school is intended to provide students with a high school equivalent education in martial arts; students should finish the program prepared to specialize in a discipline or with an idea of what they want to do with the skills they’ve learned.

Just as every child should learn how to ride a bike or swim, Lee said, every child should learn martial arts skills and how to use his or her body for self-defense.

“It’s like a seat belt,” Lee said. “Hopefully, you never have to use it, but it’s there if you need it.”

Lee said students have called him and told him the skills they learned in his school have helped them succeed and even saved their lives by helping them defend themselves. He added that martial arts training also helps reduce stage fright and provides students with teaching and leadership skills.

Lee’s school offers a Jaws/Claws Leadership program, run by Maria Young, which prepares students to become instructors. Lee said he has been teaching four to six classes a day, five to six days a week, for 20 years.

“You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who’s taught as many classes as I have,” Lee said.

When he needs help with classes, Carnero is his “go to” person.

Lee said he didn’t make the best choices when he was young because he didn’t really have anything to put his positive energy into. Then one day, when Lee was walking around Berkeley, he passed a martial arts school and was so impressed by the moves he saw that he started taking classes. After that, he said, he was hooked. He began teaching classes in Berkeley before deciding to open his own school.

“I loved the work,” Lee said. “Going to work never felt like work.”

Carnero also got into martial arts by chance. She said her parents wanted her to do a sport, and like many girls her age, she wanted to do dancing or ballet, but her parents thought she was too small for those pursuits. Instead, they enrolled her in Lee’s school, which was just around the corner from her house.

One of Carnero’s favorite things about martial arts is that it requires both physical and mental fitness; students have to memorize long forms and be able to do them. Carnero said martial arts pushes a person to his or her limits and builds endurance.

Carnero said martial arts has taught her respect and discipline as well as teaching skills that will allow her to take on supervisory roles at work. She also appreciates her self-defense skills. Whenever Carnero has a bad day, she said practicing her forms makes her feel better and brings the soul aspect into her practice.

Lee appreciates that his school and experience can help people open up and likes that he gets to be a part of the success stories of his students. He said that all a student needs to get started in martial arts is enthusiasm.

“Anything you like,” Lee said, “you do it more.”

Lee’s school is located on Bay Farm Island, and Lee said they are always looking for new students. More information is available on Alameda Martial Arts’ website.