INDIAN TRAIL – When Ryan Schooler started taking martial arts in August 2008, the sport was just a hobby. But four years later, the hobby is now a passion and the 16-year-old Porter Ridge High School junior holds the title of Mr. Olympia Teen Middleweight National Champion of 2012.
Ryan competed in the 2012 Mr. Olympia Teen Middleweight category on Sept. 29 in what was supposed to be a two-to-three-minute round. He defeated his opponent in just 23 seconds.
“Afterward, I was like, ‘Whoa, that was pretty fast,’ and I was just really pumped for the rest of the night,” he said. “It felt really good.”
But Ryan didn’t set out to become a Mr. Olympia champion when he started taking classes four years ago. He first decided to learn martial arts after his little brother enrolled at the Martial Arts Gym in Indian Trail.
As a growing 12-year-old, Ryan started noticing the mixed martial arts he was learning – a combination of Kempo Jitsu and kickboxing – was strengthening his body, giving him more confidence and helping him excel at other activities. His instructor began to notice Ryan had a natural talent for martial arts.
“(Ryan) showed talent pretty much immediately, and he was also very lucky because he was working with kids that were at a much more advanced level,” Suzy Schooler, Ryan’s mom, said.
Ryan said training with more advanced athletes drove him to improve. He admits at first he would get “beat up” pretty frequently, but persistence and perseverance proved to be an asset, and Ryan soon was able to hold his own against his challengers.
After nearly four years of training, Ryan’s instructor invited him to represent the Martial Arts Gym in the 2012 Mr. Olympia competition in Las Vegas, Nev. Ryan spent the entire summer working as a lifeguard at the Siskey YMCA to earn enough money to pay for the trip.
At first, he wasn’t going to tell a lot of people he was competing out of fear he might lose. But word traveled fast, and pretty soon his entire school knew about the tournament, which he said gave him one option: win it.
“We knew at that point, it was go hard or go home,” his mom said.
Ryan credits the win to instincts he’s learned from four years of serious training.
The match was supposed to be a two-to-three minute round of sparring and ground fighting, as 95 percent of matches end up on the ground. But just seconds after the round began, Ryan took his opponent to the ground and trapped him in a guillotine move, forcing the opponent to tap out.
“He just made a mistake and I capitalized on it,” he said. “It’s just automatic. You don’t even think about it.”
Now that he’s won the championship, Ryan, a senior brown belt, hopes to focus on getting his black belt, which he could test for as early as February 2013. But he also hopes to take what he’s learned and give back to the community.
Ryan recently submitted a proposal to his school’s guidance counselor to start a service project where he would teach basic martial arts to children with autism. His prospective students would be elementary-age, high-functioning children, and he would use pads, bags and other tools to encourage the kids to take out their aggression in a healthy way while also building confidence and strength.
“To have a place you know that you can go, and you can set goals and then you can achieve them, it really makes you feel so much more confident in your own skin,” Suzy Schooler said. “It would just help them in so many aspects.”
Ryan said he’d also like to incorporate his martial arts lessons into games the children could play during the classes.
“I definitely would want to play games with them so they wouldn’t be so bored,” he said. “Most learning experiences, if they’re not made fun, then you just lose attention.”
Ryan hopes to start the project in early 2013 and plans to spend the next several months securing a venue to teach the classes, while also looking for sponsors to donate equipment like punching bags and pads, mats and gloves.
Looking to the future, Ryan intends to finish high school with a handful of Advanced Placement credits and hopes to attend either Duke University or UNC-Chapel Hill to study pre-med.
“I’d like to become a doctor,” he said. “I’m interested in cardiology, but I’m not sure yet if that’s what I’d like to be. We’ll see.”