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That nerdy kid from Newfoundland climbs the ranks in karate

So how exactly does one go from being a rather nerdy kid, not particularly sports-minded at all, to becoming one of this country's driving forces in the sport of karate, a man whose opinion carries weight internationally in a whole variety of settings?

Let's ask Craig Vokey.

The 54 year-old Sudbury resident, who was born in Newfoundland but moved from Edmonton to northern Ontario on the second last day of 1993, has been president of Karate Canada since 2016.

Even more impressive, perhaps, is the fact that he was named to the Pan American Federation Executive Council in 2016, the first Canadian to hold a seat at the table in two to three decades, and two years later, was selected as the General Secretary of the Commonwealth Federation.

He also founded and has led the Laurentian Karate Club since virtually the day that he and his wife (Susan) first arrived in Sudbury and was proficient enough in chess to rank as among the top two or three players in the north, at one time, though he doesn't play much at all these days.

And yes, he does hold a 7th degree black belt, albeit more as a testament to his dedication to the sport that any real natural talent. "I have seen more uncoordinated people than myself in my lifetime, but not a whole lot of them," Vokey recently joked.

In fact, his accomplishments have far more to do with both a background in organizational behaviour, largely from a volunteer perspective, and the development of skills that would lead to a number of leadership positions, in organizations, over the years, than anything he had stored specifically in his athletic toolbox.

"My mother was always interested in community service and she instilled a lot of that in me," he said. "Besides being a volunteer, even in my young teens, I actually sat on my first board when I was 16 years old."

The Community Cooperative Housing Unit became the stepping stone for groups from St John’s to Alberta and now Ontario that have benefitted from the benevolence of Craig Vokey.

Still, his breakthrough on a more global setting would come only much later and well after the events that opened his door to karate. "When I started first year university at Memorial (in St John's), a buddy of mine wanted to go to this karate class," he recalled. "It was a brand new club and he wanted someone to go with him."

"After two months, he quit, but I stayed."

There were no visions of grandeur, of athletic excellence; just a chance to get out a little and work up a sweat. And for a young man who would steer clear of traditional organized sport, there was something about this new initiative that spoke to Vokey. "Karate was amazingly cool to me," he said.

"The year prior, the first Karate Kid movie had come out, so karate was going through a bit of a boost in popularity. It's very structured, a very respectful sport. There was something about it, very different, that really piqued my interest."

It turns out that Vokey was blessed with better than average reflexes, with hand speed that allowed him to be adept, at his level, when it came to sparring - especially with those of a similar background. "I was always a really good weekend warrior," he said.

The father of three would not only establish a karate group at the local university, but help it grow to the point where both he and his students were attending competitions across the province. Recognizing a lack of qualified officials, Vokey would earn his accreditation, becoming a national official by 2006.

His affable demeanour served him well. Gregarious and humble, yet blessed with a keen sense of administrative detail, Vokey was making the contacts that are invaluable when one yearns to become involved more deeply. "I kind of had a reputation as an honest broker, for lack of a better term," he said.

With key colleagues also prepared to tackle the adventure that is a provincial board, Vokey took that leap of faith, serving with Karate Ontario from 2007 to 2013, all while overlapping on to the national scene for the final three years of his mandate. "It started becoming difficult to separate provincial from national, and the time commitment involved was heavy, and we still had a young family," he said.

"In 2013, I finished with Ontario, but stayed on with Karate Canada and was now vice-president."

"There is a real shift going from provincial to national," he explained. "As much as Ontario is a big province, everyone is still from Ontario. Everyone kind of knows each other, we know the cities and all that. Once you get on a national board, dealing with Ontario is very different than dealing with P.E.I., which is different than dealing with Quebec, or the Northwest Territories."

But Vokey was very much at home in this new domain. His years of experience in volunteer-led organizations had prepped him well for the task at hand as he ascended to the very top of the hierarchical pyramid at Karate Canada.

"I am learning every day, that's for sure, but I think one of the skill sets that's really helped me is the ability to get people to play nice in the sandbox, to kind of bring people together. My approach is always to share information, with everything based around ethical decision making."

"That's always served me well, even if there is always a challenge in waiting." His was a process that earned Vokey a great deal of respect outside of the Canadian borders.

In 2015, he was selected to be the Sport Organizing Chair for the sport of karate at the Pan American Games in Toronto.

"Working with broadcasts and all of the logistics and everything else was an amazing experience," he said. "Through that, I was introduced to the world president and the Pan American president for karate, as well as a number of movers and shakers in the sport in the world."

The travel is nice (in non-pandemic times), as is the opportunity to witness first-hand some of the sport's greatest competitors. Still, Vokey sees bigger picture benefits to his roles. "I've been able to further a few issues for Canada, to help out some of our athletes," he said. "My involvement has been very good for our country."

And on a personal level, it's been perhaps even better.

"I've gone so much further than I ever thought I would," he said. "Karate has been so good to me."

Not at all bad for that nerdy kid from Newfoundland.

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