By Matt St. Jean SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) – Tucked away off of Erie Boulevard in Syracuse is a karate studio called Smak Dojo. The dojo trains teenagers and young adults to become national competitors. The man in charge of that training is Sergey Kushniv.
Kushniv brings nearly 40 years of knowledge to the dojo. He started training in karate and martial arts back in 1980 in the Soviet Union.
He grew up in Leningrad, what is now St. Petersburg, and competed for the Soviet Karate Federation until 1984.
“One day, [the government] closed down the federation,” Kushniv said. “They closed down the schools. Some karate teachers were even put in jail.”
It’s an experience that has stuck with him to this day.
“I remember the moment when they came in and made us take off our uniforms, our belts. We weren’t allowed to even talk about it,” Kushniv said.
Kushniv likened the shutdown to the Boxer Rebellion in China. He didn’t think the Soviet government liked their people learning how to defend themselves or to fight. But that didn’t stop him and his friends from training.
“Oh, we still trained,” Kushniv said under a smile, “We didn’t have teachers, but we trained in
basements in the dark, and we trained in the streets.”
His journey eventually led him to Syracuse in 1990. Kushniv didn’t speak much English, but karate solved that problem.
“I found a group of people who trained and they soon recognized my passion for the sport,” Kushniv recalled. “They started asking me questions and I started sharing my knowledge. It made speaking in English easier or at least less scary.”
Kushnir started coaching and training at the Smak Dojo in 2005 and has produced several national champions at a number of levels.
Karate was officially recognized as an Olympic sport in 2016 and Kushnir has his eyes set on Tokyo 2020 for several of his students, including his own son.
“What I offer them is a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat, a lot of pain,” Kushnir said. “But if they buy into it, and do their best, I tell them, they will win.”
Kushnir looked up at a powerful government, which told him he couldn’t p
ursue his passion and said: No.
“Nothing was given to us,” Kushnir said. “But if you wanted to get something, you’ll get it. And I got it.”