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Woodbury native becomes youngest American to wear high-level black belt

Nathan Thorn, a 1997 Woodbury High School graduate, in September became the youngest American to ever receive a seventh-degree black belt in American karate. Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker

Nathan Thorn needed to be occupied as a youngster.

Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child living in Woodbury, he discovered he had trouble focusing. He would drift off while playing the outfield in baseball. He was constantly switching up positions in football to stay engaged.

Then his aunt found a coupon for a karate class - a discovery that changed his life.

Thorn's introduction to karate set him on a path that led to a prestigious distinction this year for the 1997 Woodbury High School graduate.

In September, Thorn - who owns his own karate studio in Stillwater - became the youngest American ever to be awarded a seventh-degree black belt in what's known as American karate.

The 33-year-old receives the achievement with the humility that he has been taught and teaches as an accomplished instructor.

"Martial arts is a way of life," the two-time defending North American Sport Karate Association world champion said. "It's not an activity."

Reaching seventh-degree black belt takes time, commitment and outreach, Thorn said.

Rising through the ranks, he first had to prove himself as an expert to reach the black belt level - an accomplishment Thorn made at the age of 12. To reach higher degrees, he has had to demonstrate higher skill levels, an acumen for instruction and success in competition.

The seventh-degree belt is a recognition of his ability to establish himself as a top-level competitor and an instructor whose students aren't just champions themselves, but go on to develop champions in their own right.

Thorn began learning karate at the age of 8. His family quickly learned it was a healthy alternative to medication in his battle with ADD.

"I credit martial arts for helping me focus," Thorn said.

He said he was able to pick it up easily, first being drawn by the opportunity to punch, kick and compete in tournaments.

Thorn joined a Twin Cities studio founded by one of the nation's top martial arts competitors. The lineage of the studio was directly connected with the person who first brought taekwondo to the United States and had already produced some of the nation's top competitors.

"I said, 'I guess that's who I have to be too,'" Thorn said.

He said he honed his skills on the mat against older competitors in the 1990s after youth buzz surrounding martial arts meant participation in the younger ranks dropping off.

Thorn won his first adult grand championship at age 15 and hasn't looked back.

He now runs The Edge karate studio in Stillwater, a business he opened in 2003. Since then, he has branched out, opening a marketing business and developing a line of martial arts uniforms and gloves that he expects to make a splash.

"Martial arts has taught me how to run those (businesses)," Thorn said.

A former Business Student of the Month at WHS, Thorn noted that he had a vision for his karate studio as a high schooler. The business plan he submitted for a class at WHS, though, only received a "C."

It ended up being the same business plan he used to open The Edge. He figures he's earned an"A" on his own.

"If you believe in it," Thorn said, "you can make it work."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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