WALLA WALLA — Alex Lybbert is not a typical 17-year-old.
Instead of homecoming dances and football games, Lybbert is preparing for the World Karate Championships held in Munich, Germany, in January.
He is one of only four 17-year-olds in the nation to be selected for Team USA.
Lybbert, a Walla Walla High School junior who turns 17 this month, made the team by winning at the AAU Karate National Championship in Cincinnati, Ohio, in late June.
He earned a spot at the national championship by winning the regional qualifier, held in Seattle in April.
Throughout it all, Lybbert’s dedication has propelled him onto the national stage.
“It’s a big adrenaline rush,” Lybbert said of national competitions. “You feel like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe all this hard training comes into play here.’”
Alex, a second-degree black belt, has been training since the age of 2, when his father and sensei, David, brought him to the Walla Walla Karate Center.
“It’s been such a part of his life that there is no other part of his life,” David Lybbert said. “I’ve always let him do all the other (sports), but this was his year. This was our goal, that this year he would make it.”
Now Alex will don the stars and stripes and compete against the best in the world. But to get here, he had to make it through the rigors of qualifying.
For the third consecutive year, Alex laid waste to the regional tournament in Seattle. He has been the most outstanding athlete in his age group (14-17-year-olds) at the regional tournament for the last three years.
This year was no different, as Alex took first in the weapons portion, which involves going through motions using a bow or staff. In the competition, two competitors go head-to-head, with three judges deciding who’s form reigns supreme.
He also collected first in kata, which literally translates to “form.” In the kata section, competitors perform a specified series of moves, while maintaing perfect techniques.
Finally, Alex took second in kumite, which involves two competitors essentially sparring, with one attacking and the other defending. Points are collected for knocking, sweeping, or throwing your opponent to the floor.
Considering his three-year run of dominance, placing second in kumite was a bit of a letdown, Lybbert said.
“It’s been getting easier when I’m going there,” Alex said. “I usually have one or two competitors that are really hard. The rest are kind of easy now that I’ve been getting used to them.”
Following his success at the regional qualifier, Alex moved on to the AAU Karate National Championship in June. He tied for first in weapons, fourth in kata and third in kumite.
Based off his performance at the national championship, Alex was selected to represent the USA at the Wold Championships.
“It’s really awesome,” Alex said. “I can’t even put it in words how exciting this is for me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Now, with only a few months separating Alex from his dream, he is preparing to face the best the world has to offer.
But Alex should not look further than the man who trained him.
David, a sixth-degree black belt, has been training since he was 13.
But he still isn’t finished learning, David said, as he’s still improving his craft every day.
“I’ve trained with the very best and I’ve fought many of the very best,” David said. “There’s doctors that are good at what they do, karate is what I do. I’m a professional and I’ve spent my life pursuing the kumite and the kata. It’s something I think about every day and I want to improve every day.”
David has won various regional tournaments during his career. He beat the No. 7- and No. 10-rated fighters in America, but unfortunately could not afford to compete at the national and international tournaments, he said.
Now David has the opportunity to compete vicariously through his youngest son.
“I couldn’t afford to go to the Florida tournaments or the Chicago tournaments,” David said. “I know I could have done well.
I wanted to make sure my kids had that,” he continued. “I took all of my kids to the Las Vegas tournament, which is a world championship. Alex won three medals there and he’s the only kid that competed in every division (weapons, kata and kumite).”
David has three other sons, but none have reached the level Alex is at. Two of them reached first-degree black belts, but there was something different about Alex, David said.
“If there’s a challenge on the karate floor, he trains until he meets it,” David said. “That’s what’s helping him to get where he’s at. When he sees other people that are better than himself, he trains until he’s better than them.”
His dedication, David said, is what sets Alex apart from everyone else. Since age 2, Alex has been entrenched in karate. From following his father around the karate center to being the practice dummy for his brothers, Alex seemed like a natural, David said.
Then ,as he became more engulfed with karate, his training regimen became more serious. The hours in the gym extended, and began to include weight-lifting and cardio workouts, which sometimes lasted late into the night.
But the training only made him a more complete fighter, and his commitment, well, that took care of the rest.
“There’s this boy from Team Canada and Alex fought him one year,” David said. “The kid won because the ref made the wrong call. He pointed at Alex, but called the other kids color.
“But the next year, Alex fought the same kid for the championship and Alex just totally annihilated him,” David continued. “The third year, the boy wouldn’t fight him.”
Now, with a shot at claiming a world championship, Alex is focused more than ever. The training days are starting to become longer, but that’s something Alex relishes, not avoids.
“My goal right now is to go there and win,” Alex said. “I just want to go there and do my best. If I don’t win — that’s fine. I just want to make sure I go there prepared because I don’t want to go there and totally mess up. That would be horrible.”
Luckily for Alex, he has a sensei who knows a thing or two about competing against the world’s best.
David said the two are focusing on the little things at this point — speed, angles, deception moves and looking for indicators of what the opposition is trying to do.
“I don’t bang it in their head,” David said. “They just have that desire. When you’ve got an athlete with his kind of talent and with that desire, you’re going to have a winner. He really has the talent.”