Highland Park Renaissance Teen to represent U.S. karate team

HIGHLAND PARK, IL – Amid the challenges and isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, a local high school student was able to tune into her passions and share them with the world, from performing and martial arts to focus put on science, technology, engineering and math or STEM.

Julie Kerpel, a junior at Highland Park High School, is a third generation karate black belt, Zumba instructor, part-time employee of a Belgium-based non-profit organization that encourages girls in science and a section head in the school group – among other things – in addition to taking advanced placement courses and a group of close friends.

“I’m obviously very busy and very reserved on my schedule, but whatever I find important I will always take time for it. I will always take time for my passions,” Kerpel told Patch.

“It’s a lot. It’s early morning meetings for Brussels and late night homework, but it’s worth it because I’m able to do what I love and what excites me,” he said. she declared. “I’m really lucky to be in a community that supports me with all of these passions, and my parents are so supportive and loving, and they gave me all the opportunities they could give me, and how could I not not doing everything I love in such an amazing environment? And so I take time for what’s important, and it has worked so far. “

Kerpel said she always wanted to be an engineer and planned to pursue a career in the field after college. Right now, she is taking an elective course at HPHS in Civil Engineering and Architecture with a particular interest in structural engineering, she said.

“For a very long time, math and physics were very natural to me. And when I was little my dad told me how my brother and I played with blocks and my brother made this really creative tower that didn’t structurally wasn’t his whatsoever, and when I was building I had symmetrical squares that were very sturdy and very structured, ”Kerpel said.

“I found the beauty in that symmetry and in this ability to be able to calculate something and know that it will work,” she added. “That’s why I love math, physics and engineering so much, because it makes sense of the world for me.

“Physics, it gives me the rules and the equations to know that is why the ball flies at this speed and why the roof stays over my head, and as I walk through life I see physics and math and just these laws of nature at work, and it gives me a sense of peace and quiet about why it works. ”

In October 2020, Kerpel became a volunteer Ambassador for Greenlight for Girls, a Brussels-based non-profit organization that aims to inspire girls to continue studying STEM subjects. Each ambassador designs and pursues its own projects and promotes local STEM initiatives. In February, Kerpel was hired as the group ambassador coordinator.

“With these projects, we like to say the sky is the limit, and we just want our ambassadors to follow their passions, and it’s my job to help think of a project that can do that,” Kerpel said.

Most of the girls she coordinates with are based in other countries.

“It’s really inspiring to see girls all over the world who love STEM as much as I do,” she said.

But before entering his final year of high school, Kerpel, a third-generation black belt, is due to represent the American team in July at the World Maccabiah Games in Israel. The quadrennial competition for Jewish athletes, often referred to as the “Jewish Olympics,” was postponed from last year.

Kerpel started karate in the local park district when she was about 6 years old and started training with Jeff Kohn from North Shore Dojo at Glenview at the age of 10 before diving deeper into martial arts last year.

“For a while it was just something I did once a week because my mom wanted it, because she was a black belt and she wanted my brother and I to win our black belts too,” he said. she declared. “But then with the pandemic a lot of my other activities were slowed down or stopped, and I really got to spend a lot of energy and time in karate, and I fell in love with the sport again.”

Kerpel trained every day for weeks, she said, and began to help teach classes. She earned a black belt in November 2020 and a senpai, or teacher, degree in June.

“I think it changed my mindset. Because when I was just starting karate it was always, ‘Oh, I’m doing this because my mom wants me to get a black belt’, and then everything changed from, “My mom wants me to do it”, to “I want to be a black belt”, and that mental shift really motivated me a lot and maybe just keep going and take it further, “he said. she declared.

“Then once I got my black belt I was like, ‘let’s keep doing this, I want to keep growing’, and it wasn’t about a belt rank anymore, it was about ‘be the best karate person I could be and get better every time. day. “

In-person competitions have been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as soon as Kerpel had a chance to get back on the mat, she grabbed it.

“I was like, ‘I want to be there. I want to compete. I want to see how I stack up against other girls my age so that I can learn my strengths and weaknesses, and see what I can improve on. she declared. noted.

In September, she placed third in 2021 USA Karate national championships in the 16-year-old division for advanced kumite. The discipline of kumite involves fighting with an opponent, while kata is a solo presentation of form.


Julia Kerpel poses with the bronze medal at the 2021 U.S. National Karate Championships in Schaumburg on September 5. (Credit: Melissa Kerpel)

Kerpel said the kumite state of mind was complicated and chaotic, but Kohn, his sensai, helped break down the 2-minute match into manageable 15-second increments.

“So for example the first 15 seconds of a match I bounce back and try to gauge my opponent and try to see his strengths and weaknesses, then the next 15 seconds I pretend a bit and I see how she reacts, and it’s described as a game of chess, ”she explained.

“So there are a lot of thoughts in my head about what attack I should do, when should I do this attack, save my energy, keep fighting, be aggressive, so it’s just a lot of thoughts to that time.”


Julia Kerpel competes at the US National Karate Championships in September 2021. (Melissa Kerpel)

After training at the Makai Ballet in Highland Park since the age of 2, Kerpel said she recognized many links between martial arts and the performing arts.

“There is a specific way you want to have your posture to dance, and that’s sometimes verbatim what I’m told in karate and ballet: shoulders back, chest up, pelvis down. . And I started ballet years before I started karate, so I had that solid foundation of posture and balance and my karate helped my ballet for power and for jumps, ”Kerpel said.

“There is a lot of crossover between the two,” she added. “Sometimes I am told that there are no karate kicks in ballet and I am told that I dance in kata, but once I find that balance it is really great to ‘have the two art forms that complement each other. “

Kerpel not only followed in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps in martial arts, she also inherited their passion for Zumba fitness classes. It all started when her mother took her to class when she was 4 years old. His mother would bring him coloring books to keep him busy.

“But I saw all the women in Zumba having fun and partying and I just wanted to participate,” she said.

Kerpel’s mother and grandmother became teachers, and as soon as she was old enough, she did too. During the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Illinois, she taught distance education to children and raised thousands of dollars for the Moraine Township Food Bank with Zoom-based Zumba classes.

“It was a really good experience to be able to connect with my mom and my grandmother through zumba and dancing,” Kerpel said.

Kerpel is also involved in school-sponsored activities, including tutoring, volunteering, and as the leader of the flute section in the band, speaking at Highland Park Patch after completing the rehearsal for the musical “Stuntz “produced by students at HPHS, the theme she described as the Oscars meet a murder mystery.

The accomplished teenager also finds time to have fun with her friends. They scoured the Marvel movies last summer and got together for things like “Powerpoint Nights” – a trend that started on TikTok and was fueled by the ubiquity of video conferencing meetings during the pandemic – in which attendees prepare presentations on often light topics of their choice and vote for a winner.

“I have a really, really great group of girls that we’ve been close friends with since the start of the first year,” she said, “and I’m incredibly lucky to call them my friends.”

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