Abigail Dudley is not your average teenager. This quiet, unassuming blond-haired, brown-eyed fifteen-year-old from Winslow—with perfectly painted fingernails—is the youngest person ever to receive a black belt at Huard’s Martial Arts since it opened 55 years ago. She earned this accomplishment over the summer, but it’s a goal she’s been working to achieve since she began taking classes at age four.
“I saw early on that she was a unique individual who had a lot of focus, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to go all the way,” Abby’s karate teacher, Shihon [Japanese for master instructor] Mike Huard, explains. “We do a lot of different martial arts at our school, and we stress the aspect of being able to do striking and grappling. She had to do everything, which is another thing that makes it hard to get promoted because you have to be physical. You have to get down and dirty sometimes, and not everyone can do it.”
Abby could do it. Each week this petite yet powerful, confident, and exceptionally competitive teen just kept showing up to class with an appetite to learn more and a drive to knock down any obstacle that stood in her way. And she did so all while balancing school, dance, and gymnastics along with karate.
“I grew up being a dancer,” Abby says. “The flexibility and kicking that goes with dancing was always something I was into. Karate also has a lot to do with legs, flexibility, balance, and coordination. So, it is something I enjoy doing.”
Shihon Mike says Abby’s other extra-curricular activities never became a distraction for her. Instead, they helped condition and improve her karate skills and abilities.
“Because of dancing and ballet, her technique and focus were so good. Her dancing didn’t subtract from it. For some people it does. They can’t balance that much,” he explains.
Abby also had good support, allowing consistency and attendance. “It takes more than a good student [to earn a black belt]. It takes good instructors. It takes dedicated parents because you can’t skip classes. You have to really earn it, and she never skipped a class.”
As Abby became more involved in karate, she and her family started traveling all over New England, to Washington, D.C. and New York, to participate in various karate competitions.
“She is very competitive. Her favorite part of all this is learning the new techniques she needs in order to travel and do tournaments,” her mother Angela Poulin explains. “There was only one tournament that she was in that I had a hard time watching her fight because she was literally getting the snot beat out of her. But she wouldn’t give up.”
Angela continues, sharing more about her daughter’s perseverance, “The Sensei [Japanese term for teacher] would keep going over to Abby saying, ‘Are you okay? We can stop this fight.’ But she wouldn’t stop, she wouldn’t give up. We finally had to call the match because she would’ve been on the floor bleeding or on a stretcher before she would ever give in.”
Abby’s grit and determination never waivered. It only grew stronger until she began to win one competition after another, bringing home an astounding 45 first-place wins.
“The amount of awards she got the year before the pandemic was just phenomenal,” Angela says. “We have a whole room in our house that’s just for her trophies and plaques.”
The COVID-related shutdown didn’t get in Abby’s way. She stayed motivated, practicing her skills at home regularly and logging onto her computer for online karate classes. She even participated in several virtual tournaments, where she successfully earned the rank of World and National champion.
“If I see a challenge, I focus on that challenge. I keep at it until I conquer it. Then the rest seems to follow,” Abby says.
Yet as hard as she tries, she admits, she is no super-human. She, too, has her weaknesses and areas that resist mastery. “I’m a perfectionist. I’m competitive with everything—everything except mini-golf. I always lose. I’m so bad at that game!”
Along with her black belt, Abby has also earned the title of Sensei and the privilege of being able to teach karate students who are both younger and older than she is.
“I’ll be up front showing or demonstrating a Kata [a sequence of karate moves], or certain kicks throughout class,” Abby explains.
“She knows what she’s doing,” Shihon Mike adds. “For so long [as a student], she was taking and learning from everybody. Now everyone else wants her knowledge and wants to take and learn from her. It’s going to be a pretty interesting road ahead for her.”
She’s only a sophomore in high school, but Abby has lifelong plans to stay at the head of the class. Earning her black belt is just the beginning.
“I’d like to go to Julliard [a private performing arts school in N.Y.] and get an advanced degree,” Abby says, in speaking of the future. “Hopefully I will do something with teaching and dance, maybe even open my own business someday.”
Wherever life takes her, Abby will no doubt be an inspiration to many, as well as a role model to karate students who are learning, working hard, and improving their skills.
Photos courtesy of Huard’s Martial Arts and Jodie Hersey.