Teacher and student for life

Zaunbrecher continues to advance through martial arts

Karl Zaunbrecher, right, receives his certificate of fifth Dan in Chon tu Kwan Hapkido from sensei Robert Shiller in a recent ceremony at Placid Martial Arts in Lake Placid. (Photo provided)

LAKE PLACID — Typically, when an individual attains a fifth-degree black belt in the martial art of Chon tu Kwan Hapkido, the title of Master goes along with it.

Karl Zaunbrecher has reached that level, not only in Hapkido, but also as a Shroin Ru Karate martial artist. But the Saranac Lake resident doesn’t ever want to be called, or even known as, a Master. Being referred to as Sensei, however, is just fine with Zaunbrecher.

After beginning a martial arts career more 20 years ago, and competing for 10 of those years, Zaunbrecher is now happy just training, teaching and, of course, always continuing to learn.

Zaunbrecher is a Louisiana native with many passions. He’s a North Country veterinarian, a triathlete, an avid paddler, and so on. When it comes to Hapkido and karate, Zaunbrecher continues to be a student, but he’s also developed into a devoted and knowledgeable teacher who works with students ranging in age from their teens to 60s.

Currently an instructor at Placid Martial Arts, Zaunbrecher first trained in karate. Four years later, he began Chon tu Kwan Hapkido under Bob Shiller, who founded the school now based out of Fitness Revolution in Lake Placid. After teaching Zaunbrecher for the past 17 years, Shiller recently presented his accomplished student with his fifth degree, or fifth Dan, certificate in Chon tu Kwan Hapkido.

Karl Zaunbrecher, of Saranac Lake, controls an individual during a recent training session at the Placid Martial Arts dojo, which is located at Fitness Revolution in Lake Placid. (Photo provided)

With those many years of experience behind him, Zaunbrecher feels it’s important, and even his duty, to pass his knowledge on to his students. At the same time, Zaunbrecher continues to learn from his students.

“In Chon tu Kwan Hapkido, once I achieve the level of fifth Dan, my title is supposed to be Master,” Zaunbrecher said. “I’m not comfortable with that title. I don’t like the suggestion that I’ve mastered this art because I’m not even remotely close.

“I have the title but I won’t use it. The only title I use is sensei. Sensei simply means ‘The one who went before.’ That’s a title I’m comfortable with. If I know something my students don’t know, I can say, ‘Well, I went here before. I know the path. Follow me down the path.’

“Teaching gets me excited; that feeling I get when you see a student get something,” Zaunbrecher continued. “It’s so exciting when you see that light come on, the student understood this. I think I’m a good teacher and the reason I think I’m a good teacher is I didn’t learn this easily. I had to really work at it, and so when I see a student struggle to understand something, I can say ‘You know what. I had the same problem when I was trying to learn this and here’s how I fixed it.'”

Zaunbrecher continues to train in Hapkido under Shiller, who is a sixth Dan, and in karate, he said he’s at the point of self-teaching. Shiller described Zaunbrecher as a teaching and business partner, and said he’s happy to be partnered up with his experienced instructor. Not only does Zaunbrecher teach at Lake Placid Martial Arts, he also volunteers time at other classes, most recently free self-defense sessions for women that have been held on Saturdays at North Country Community College.

At Lake Placid Martial Arts, Shiller concentrates on teaching Hapkido while Shroin Ru Karate students train under Zaunbrecher.

“Karl is very generous with his time and energy,” Shiller said. “He comes and volunteers every time I teach a class. He has a love for teaching. I think he really just enjoys it. No matter where or when, he shows up to help. He definitely has a desire to teach and he’s passionate about it.

“He’s very focused on watching a student and seeing what a student needs a correction on,” Shiller continued. “He pays attention to the smallest detail. If a students are not responding in the right way, if they are slouching, he lets them know.”

A father of four, Zaunbrecher said he first took up karate after his children began martial arts in their teens. Although they gave it up, he stuck with it, and said he hopes to continue training and teaching well into the future.

“I started training in karate 21 years ago, in 1997, with Peter Peck,” he said. “Bob Shiller started the Hapkido program around 2000, so I started training in that. At the time my kids were teenagers and they were training in karate and it was getting to the point where they could probably kick my (butt), so I decided maybe I better start martial arts training myself. I walked into my first class saying I’m going to get my black belt. It was just something that I wanted to do.”

And Zaunbrecher only needed that first class to find out he was hooked.

“I said ‘I can do this.’ It’s like you can never, never learn all of it. There’s always something new you can learn. It’s just a blast to always be pushing that boundary back a little bit more and a little bit more and learning new things.

“It takes stubbornness,” he continued. “We have a saying, ‘A black belt is a white belt who wouldn’t quit.’ I don’t have any special athletic ability or talent or anything, I just have a lot of persistence and I just stayed with it.”

Zaunbrecher said that Hapkido, which is also referred to as combat Hapkido, and the karate he teaches are solely for self defense, and added that they are not something that children should take up when they are very young.

“I teach practical, real self defense,” he said. “My students learn things that could potentially be dangerous, so they have to be mature enough to understand how to use their training responsibly. It’s not something you go to parties and play around with.”

Zaunbrecher explained that the more he teaches, the more he learns.

“My students are always challenging me. They’re always asking me questions; ‘What if this happens? What do you do about that?’ Sometimes I can’t answer their questions and then I have to figure out the answer,” he said. “You are always a student, no matter what rank or title or description you attain until you discontinue you’re training.

“Through teaching, I realize now that I have learned about 10 times as much about the martial arts after I got my first black belt than before that. It just requires persistence and patience. There are no shortcuts. It wasn’t difficult for me to advance to the next level and the next level. It was just a matter of sticking with it and continuing to train and continuing to teach and continuing to ask questions, and answer the questions that were asked of me. Over the years it just continues to accumulate.”

“I think Karl’s greatest asset is humility,” Shiller said. “Humility is a three-pronged process that involves the body, the mind and the spirit. I’ve been fortunate to train with some of the best in the world, and that’s an important trait they have. Karl has that.”

Shiller said he is honored to have had the opportunity of teaching and training alongside Zaunbrecher for many years, and hopes they can continue to team up well into the future. And with the passion Zaunbrecher has, it appears that relationship could last for years to come.

“I hope I never quit teaching. I hope I never quit training. I hope I never quit learning,” Zaunbrecher said. “You can’t learn all of it. It’s impossible. I can’t see not having this in my life.”