The Karate Kids: Joe Lee, Sebastian Witt set to take a shot at the U.S. National Team |

The Karate Kids: Joe Lee, Sebastian Witt set to take a shot at the U.S. National Team

Story and photos by Randy Wyrick
Joe Lee is taking a shot at the U.S. National Karate team when he competes in a national championship tournament in Reno, Nevada.
Randy Wyrick|

EAGLE — If Joe Lee and Sebastian Witt hit their sweet spots — their opponents’ sweet spots — then they might make the U.S. national karate team.

They’ll know in a couple of weeks, after a national championship tournament in Reno, Nevada.

Lee and Witt are competing in different weight classes of the elite division. They’ll each face 40 or 50 competitors with the same dream. The top four make the U.S. National Team. The top two get to compete all over the world, representing the United States.

No secret shortcuts

There are no shortcuts to nationals or the national team. They’ve been practicing martial arts since they were old enough to tie on their own belts. They train two hours in the morning and another four hours in the evening.

Lee is 14 years old, an Eagle Valley High School freshman. Witt, 15, is an Eagle Valley sophomore.

Lee went undefeated for four straight years and won five national titles — his only career losses have been to kids already on the national team. And that’s sort of how he came to be sponsored by Adidas.

After winning another regional title, he was hauling a trophy to the car that was taller than he is when an Adidas rep walked up to him and the family. Sometimes kids are wary of strangers, but most kids can’t punch like Lee. They exchanged introductions and pleasantries and …

“He said they’d like to sponsor me,” Lee said.

And that’s how the deal got done.

Witt’s two older brothers, Ben and David Witt, are attending the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point, respectively. Along with success in everything else, they are successful in the martial arts. Their dad, Paul, is a black belt.

Taking a shot at the national team, though, is different.

“It’s a higher level,” Witt said.


Joe’s dad, James Lee, has been teaching martial arts in the valley for 20 years. He started in East Vail and slowly migrated west to their permanent home in Eagle Ranch. His old friend Brian Hilliard is in town to help train James’ students and to get some high-altitude work.

Hilliard is a 10-time national team member and has enough national championship medals to launch his own mining company. He’s helping Lee and Witt train, the same way others helped him.

He was 3 years old when his mom started bringing him along to her lessons.

“It’s really special to have this art and these people in my life,” Hilliard said. “It’s a humbling blessing to be given this opportunity.”

Witt said from Hilliard and James they’re learning to think while they fight, how to plan several moves ahead.

“There is no mindless fighting,” Witt said.

“Everything has a reason, every move and every step. Then you add speed, strength and technique,” James said.

Headed into the nationals, Witt said he’s excited, nervous, happy, stressed — “about every emotion you can have.”

“Whatever happens, I hope to leave with no regrets, and to learn a lot,” Witt said.

This is Joe’s second shot at the national team. And how often is he willing to try?

“As often as it takes,” he said.

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