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Black Belt Dreams

Area teen finds purpose in karate

Three nights a week, in a small karate dojo on Main Street in Watford City, you can find Lili Nicholson on the mat. She might be teaching younger students how to block or kick, or holding up a mit encouraging white and yellow belts to punch her with all of their might. She might be concentrating, her eyebrows furrowed, on remembering the sequence to her latest Kata.

Whatever 13-year-old Lili might be doing at any particular moment, you can be sure it is bringing her one step closer to her ultimate goal – earning a black belt.

If you passed her on the street, you wouldn’t immediately take Lili for a black belt seeking teen. She is under five feet tall and a bit of an introvert, compact and reserved. In fact, every time her mother, Teri Nicholson, sees Lili sparring, she is blown away at how her small but powerful girl comes alive.

“It shocks me,” Teri said. “She is going up against other boys and girls who are at least a foot taller than her and she is right in their face, using her technique and agility to make up for the difference in their sizes.”

Teri laughed as she described Lili’s long blonde braid whipping around when she moves with lightning speed across the mat.

Lili is a student at Watford City Karate and MMA, owned by Tim and Liz Hartranft. The school is only 2.5 years old and Lili has been with Sensei Tim from the beginning.

Built from the ground up, the Hartranft’s have tried to bring their love of karate to the community of Watford City through their karate school. When they started they had only a few students, today they have over 60 students and a vibrant after school program.

“Lili has been with us almost the entire time and is our highest ranking student,” Sensei Tim said. “She takes in the knowledge and retains it. She is good at what she does.”

In the beginning, Lili was not excited to try to karate. Her younger sister Kyla wanted to sign up and Teri decided that if Kyla was going to try, Lili would too.

“Lili was really upset, she did not want to try karate at all. I told her that she needed to try it for two weeks and then could quit if she didn’t like it,” Teri explained. “The funny thing is, Kyla moved on to other activities but Lili is the one who connected with karate.”

Teri said that it is important that she encourage her children to try new things and she tries to push them out of their comfort zone a bit.

“If she hadn’t tried, Lili never would never have known how good she is at karate,” Teri said.

Even more than the practice of karate itself, Teri said that since Lili has started, she has become more confident and more assertive. A girl who might once have been taken as a pushover, now speaks with a clear voice when advocating for herself.

“At the end of school last year, Lili walked in to the gym for some assembly and the kids sitting on the floor didn’t make room for her to sit down,” Teri said. “Lili spoke up for herself, telling the girls on the floor that they needed to make room for her. They pushed back a bit saying that they would be squashed and Lili nicely, but firmly, asked them again to make room for her, and they did.”
Seeing Lili find her voice, find confidence in her strength and have a purpose that drives her has been beautiful to watch, Teri said

The powerful young girl keeps going, in her quiet way. As the school grows and as Lili progresses, she is finding her niche. She has competed in four tournaments and has taken first place in Kata at each one. She has also earned a first place in sparring at one of them.

“I like Kata because it is like a dance,” said Lili of the practice.

Kata is a series of techniques put together in a choreographed fight scene between you and an invisible opponent. The function of Kata is to help a student develop muscles memory and practice the techniques. When Lili does Kata, it is beautiful.

A little over a year ago, Sensei Tim appointed Lili as his Sempi, or assistant teacher. She helps him teach the younger and lower ranking classes.

“When I forget something, I look at her and she always remembers,” said Sensei. “She has a big heart, that is one of the reasons she is in her position. I can send her off with students and she can teach them what they need.”

In the process of volunteering to assist her Sensei with other classes, Lili said that it helps her perfect her technique and really think about the moves and what she is doing.

“It has helped me become a better martial artist,” Lili said.

Because of her dedication to the dojo and her own progress, Lili is set to be the first student at Watford City Karate and MMA to earn a black belt. She will earn a black belt at the young age of 14.

Her dedication and tenacity also encourages the other students.

“It is very important for her to earn her black belt,” Sensei said. “We need her to keep this place going.”

Asked why it is important for kids to get involved and volunteer in their communities, Lili said, in not so many words, that volunteering has given her ownership and responsibility, which in turn has given her confidence.

Lili hopes to one day have her own martial arts studio and, perhaps, be a Sensei herself. If nothing else, Lili has learned that she is smart and powerful, and that she can contribute to the world with her gift

Written by Betsy Ryan


Betsy Ryan resides in Watford City and is a recent transplant to Western North Dakota. She is learning to navigate her new landscape along with her husband and their two boys. Betsy writes for the McKenzie County Farmer and also shares her experiences in North Dakota on her blog,

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