Mateo Solis, right, defeats opponent Ramos Gomez of Guatemala during the 2022 Pan American Championships in Mexico City. Credit: JRLarroche

Like many ETHS seniors, Mateo Solis has been scrambling to put the finishing touches on a stack of college applications this month. Unlike his peers, the international karate champion is also getting ready to venture beyond the singular pursuit that has defined his childhood.

In August, Solis, who was ranked third in the world for 16- and 17-year-old juniors, earned a gold medal at the 2022 Pan American Championships in Mexico City while competing for Team USA. “As a junior it was my last tournament,” he said, “and it kind of marked the ideal final result.” Solis turned 18 in September, aging out of the junior division, and now competes as a senior, against men 18 and older.

Solis earned the gold medal in karate for Team USA at the 2022 Pan American Championships in August. Credit: JRLarroche

Solis said his passion for the sport was sparked in 1984 with the release of the iconic martial arts movie The Karate Kid. “I wanted to be just like Daniel LaRusso,” he recalled. “I begged my parents to put me in a karate class, so for my fourth birthday they gave me that gift of starting, and since then I never really stopped.”

His parents enrolled him at Fonseca Martial Arts on 823½ Chicago Ave. By age 11, he had earned a first-degree black belt and was competing in tournaments across the country. At 12, he made the junior nationals for the first time and traveled to Argentina for the 2017 Pan American Championships, where he earned fifth place. The following year he competed in Rio de Janeiro and took home the silver medal.

The awards and travel did not come without sacrifice or considerable help on the home front, according to Solis, who was not able to participate in traditional team sports due to his demanding schedule. “I’m really grateful to my parents,” he said. “They share the same passion that I do for karate. My dad, maybe even more than me. We’ve been on this journey together for a long, long time.”

It’s a journey that has already taken the teenager to various far-flung locations, including Brazil, Cypress, Croatia, Italy and Mexico. This year he will compete in Greece, Canada and Spain.

Solis estimates that he typically spends about 15 hours a week on training, but sometimes karate takes a backseat to academics. “Last year I was juggling five AP classes. This year I’m juggling four. I’ve struggled a lot of weeks just because I want to do it all. I kind of want to conquer everything all at the same time and I’ve realized that I can’t.”

Next fall Solis may find himself able to devote more time to schoolwork. Despite the popularity of karate, it is not currently an NCAA sport.

“It’s really unfortunate that collegiate karate is not in existence yet,” Solis said. “I really hope that it does become a thing later on, and I’d definitely be willing to work on projects toward that advancement into the NCAA, but as of now it’s not.”

College will be a dramatic change for Solis, but he maintains a zen approach to the transition. “I’ve had a very successful junior career,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but I’m willing to close that chapter in my life and move on.”

Even as Solis moves away from the discipline, he believes that lessons gleaned through years of practice will remain with him during college and beyond. “Karate has taught me a lot. The No. 1 thing that it’s taught me is to embrace the small wins and to not get too caught up on the losses. Karate has really taught me to persevere.”

Somewhere Mr. Miyagi is smiling.

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.

2 replies on “College-bound karate champ prepares to get his kicks in a new way”

  1. Well-written paper which points out the struggles of balancing academics with sports. Moreover, shows the fruits that can come from participating in extracurricular activities and really pouring your heart out whilst you do it. Mateo learned many different lessons, both physically and mentally through his countless journeys through academics and karate. Lessons which I am sure will help him and guide him as he opens doors in the future.

  2. Thank you Nancy! Karate is a niche sport in the US, but is quite popular globally. You did an incredible job at highlighting one of our local super stars.

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