Dancing with the dragon
Becoming a master and teacher of martial arts is incredibly
difficult. Doing it while suffering from epilepsy is an even bigger testament to courage and determination.
Sitting comfortably in a leather chair in the small office at his martial arts academy on State Street, Chris Strelau, on a recent early spring day, was at peace with himself.
As relaxing tai chi music filled the room, drowning out the stream of constantly passing cars just outside, Strelau, amid walls laden with shiny Chinese swords, calmly explained how there was a time, though, when he had difficulty controlling his emotions.
Diagnosed as an infant with epilepsy, a chronic medical condition marked by recurrent seizures, Streleau, 45, was seen by many as “different,” while growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s in the Seattle area.
As a youngster, he said, classmates would tease him about his condition — which can make him twitch, cease hearing, see flashing lights and, sometimes, completely black out — and school officials weren’t quite sure how to treat him.
“I had a lot of difficulties with my fellow students because of my seizures,” said Strelau. “Neither the students nor the faculty really understood what I had. The school even put me in a special class, away from the other students.”
The seizures, which came in different forms, would at times make him stutter or contort the muscles in his face, leading some fellow students to believe he was mocking them. Other times, seizures would prompt him to completely lose track of what he was doing, and he’d walk out of classes or get lost on his way home.
While Strelau was an athletic kid — a popular member of Little League baseball and youth soccer teams — kids were pretty tough on him away from the fields of competition because of the actions his seizures could prompt. Meanwhile, because his seizures were seen as “outbursts,” he spent his school days in classrooms for students with special needs.
Being separated from the general student body for much of the day, combined with the teasing he was getting, Strelau said, led to low self- esteem — and by his sophomore year at Queen Anne High School, he’d become a pretty angry young man.
One day that year at football practice, however, his coach, Fred Sato, a teacher at Seattle Jujutsu Club and an acquaintance of martial arts legends Bruce Lee and Taki Komura, took Streleau aside.
Sato, Strelau recalled, told him he’d noticed how the seizures were affecting his life and suggested coming to some classes with him, where, perhaps, learning martial arts techniques could help him keep his mind and body constantly active, deal better with negative emotions and simply meet some new, encouraging people.
Strelau, who was constantly meeting with doctors and trying to find the right medication to treat his epilepsy, wasn’t able to stay in the class long, but he was nonetheless fascinated with the philosophies, instructors and students he came across.
“I met some people who really supported me,” he said.
Several months later, when Strelau was feeling better, he joined the Seattle Kung Fu Tai Chi Association, where he learned under Sifu (teacher) John Leong.
“I learned to find strengths within myself and not worry about what other people thought about me — that was their weakness,” Strelau said. “Going to class was about learning how to work through different emotions and getting through difficult times. It wasn’t about kicking butt, it was about going out and learning how to handle different things.”
Being around a supportive group of people, and learning that his differences made him who he was, Strelau gained a new confidence in himself.
Rather than getting angry at people who teased him about his seizures, Strelau instead looked to help educate others about his condition and gave speeches to classmates and school officials about his condition.
“After having been kicked out of school and getting in fights, I was voted ‘Friendliest’ in my class by the time I graduated high school. That’s the type of difference (martial arts) made in my life,” he said.
After graduating from high school in 1980, Strelau pursued various opportunities, including playing soccer at Shoreline Community College, teaching himself to play guitar, getting married and moving to Bellingham to attend Whatcom Community College and become an optician.
All the while, however, Strelau continued practicing martial arts, primarily with local instructor Eddie Lang, and had visions of one day opening his own studio.
Strelau finally opened his first academy in 1990, in Boise, Idaho, where he was working as a lab manager for Lens Crafters. After the birth of his son two years later, the family moved back to Bellingham to be closer to family.
Upon his return to town, Strelau decided to approach a new martial arts school with gusto.
“I told my wife that I was going to go all out for it, otherwise it was never going to happen,” he said. “I gave up my guitar and soccer — the other two loves I had — because you can’t have too many loves and be training six days a week.”
In 1994, Strelau started the Bellingham Kung Fu/Tai Chi Club on Holly Street and over the ensuing years slowly grew the school.
His progress was cut short in 2000, however, when, as a passenger in a car, he was injured in an accident on Chestnut Street, pinching his sciatic nerve and losing feeling in one of his legs. Unable to earn an income for six months, Strelau soon lost his studio and the apartment above it that he was living in.
Despite suffering the setback, Strelau never let go of his dream.
He took a job painting houses, which he still does today, to help pay the bills, but continued to operate his studio, renting out dance studios around town and holding practices in people’s backyards. Several times a year, he travels to China to study under two martial arts masters.
This winter, Strelau finally found a new location, at 1705 N. State St., to re-open his studio, now called the Chinese Martial Arts Academy. He also teaches classes to members of the Bellingham Senior Activity Center.
Strelau, a master in Hung Gar, a Cantonese style of southern Shaolin Tiger & Crane Kung Fu (a combat system which emphasizes the use of hands and low stances), who has won numerous state and regional competitions, said operating his own academy gives him a chance to pass on the lessons he learned from his teachers.
To this day, Strelau’s seizures prevent him from performing many routine things like driving a car or riding a bicycle, but he continues to tell his students how positive attitudes, dedication and focus can help people overcome obstacles.
“My philosophy, and one of the reasons I’ve been teaching, is to help others,” Strelau said.
Because his martial arts teachers and fellow students were so supporting of his condition when he was growing up, Strelau said he also tries to create a family atmosphere at his studio. So students in his class can best understand each other, after workouts everyone sits in a circle and talks about things that are going on in their lives.
“In a traditional Kung Fu school, every student has a family name, and you work together as a family,” Strelau said. “We’re always lifting each other up, and that’s the kind of attitude we should have not only as a school but also as a community.”
Whenever possible, Strelau said he looks to find ways for his students and school to help others in the community. Last month, for example, he invited well-known Chinese calligrapher Kathy Bai to
show her work at his studio. Sales from her appearance, along with 50 percent of new student fees from March, were donated to Jake Finkbonner, a local youth who has been battling a deadly bacteria infection killing the tissue in his face.
Charles Clark, 44, a security guard at the Cherry Point Refinery who has practiced under Strelau for nine years, said students at the studio hold Strelau in high regard because of his approach to life and the challenges he’s overcome.
Strelau, said Clark, never holds himself on a pedestal, and offers personal attention to as many people as he can.
“He’s been one of the few instructors who’s shown a willingness to teach my wife, who’s in a wheelchair,” Clark said. “He’s the first to tell you he’s not perfect, but he does the best he can to live a lifestyle where he feels he’s doing the best he can in the world.”
Strelau, who spends about $800 a month on epilepsy medications, says he still believes martial arts have been the best possible remedy for combating his seizures. As for the high marks his students and others give him, he takes them in stride.
“What comes around goes around,” he said.