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They won't know and could never guess, when they sit down next to Justin Eggert on the airplane headed for China.

"I'm going to a conference on pottery," a passenger will say. "Why are you going to China?"

"I'm going to compete in martial arts," Eggert will say.

This conversational exchange actually happened and the reaction was the same, as it has been all the other times in which he shocked his seat mate on the 13 trips he's made to China.

"Wait! What?" was the response. Confusion and shock make for an interesting facial expression, as someone who has taken too many revolutions on a merry-go-around.

"Most martial arts experts are Chinese," said Eggert, who teaches tai chi at SRJC.

Eggert is — and these are his words — a "white boy." As white as porcelain.

"Most martial arts experts are not large people," said Eggert, a 2001 Santa Rosa High School graduate.

Eggert is 6-foot-2, 240 pounds.

"Most martial arts teachers are older gentlemen," said Eggert, who runs a tai chi academy in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Eggert is 29.

"And so then they ask me if I could beat up Bruce Lee," said Eggert, referring to the movie star who first popularized martial arts and died at 32.

And he says?

"I tell them it would be in bad taste," he said, "to challenge a dead person."

By this time Eggert's airplane seat mate typically goes silent to absorb all the contradictions. Eggert is just skimming the surface.

Eggert was the coach and competitor for Team USA last November in China in World's Traditional Wushu (kung fu), what the sport calls the Olympics of Chinese Martial Arts. It is the largest martial arts championship in the world with 80 countries sending their nation's best to compete. Eggert won two silver medals. Team USA brought home four golds, eight silvers and six bronze medals. He is a four-time world silver medalist in kung fu. He is an international judge, meaning he can go anywhere in the world and judge any level of martial arts competition.

In other words, Eggert ain't no wanna-be. He is.

Next month the International Olympic Committee will meet to decide which sports to propose for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Games. The IOC General Assembly will vote in September. If martial arts are accepted as an Olympic sport — Eggert believes there's an 80 percent chance of that happening — he will have the inside track on being USA's national coach.

After all, there's no language barrier. Eggert speaks fluent Chinese.

Not bad for a guy who started in movies. Yes, that's how it all began for Eggert at age 8.

"I think I saw too many martial arts movies," Eggert said. "I saw Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee and Jet Li and I told myself I want to have moves like that."

The rest — and this is not going to sound sexy at all — is hard work. You might even say Justin Eggert is the prototype example of what can be accomplished through sweat equity. He learned and he practiced and for years it's been that way. His family? Bruce, his dad, is an electrical engineer. Linda, his mom, is a sociologist. They do like Chinese foods but that's about as close to the discipline as they get.

"They tell me I'm the Chinese guy in the family," he joked.

His ascendency in the sport has been entirely self-generated. Was he intimidated by being — literally and figuratively — outside the martial arts culture? Not if your zest for the sport hurdles all obstacles. Example: Eggert once was a stutterer. That would never work as a competitor or as a teacher. So Eggert learned why it was happening and how to stop it.

"Martial arts challenges you to become aware and use every part of your body," Eggert said. "It is such a dynamic way of getting to know yourself."

Kobe Bryant doesn't love basketball any more than Eggert loves the martial arts. The reason? Any competitive athlete, and that includes Bryant, will love and agree with his attraction to the sport.

"I think that's what drew me, the athleticism," Eggert said. "The moves were fantastical."

For decades Hollywood has realized this as well. Seems like every action movie has someone with flying feet or flying hands or spinning like a top. It's that photogenic quality of martial arts, Eggert believes, that will make it an Olympic sport.

"When someone spins six times in the air and then lands perfectly balanced on his feet ..." Eggert paused for a moment, engaged in the image as I was listening to it.

Jackie Chan lights up the big screen with his effortless acrobatics. It was inevitable, therefore, armchair athletes who could walk and chew gum at the same time would think they could do the same thing after a couple stretching exercises.

One day a SRJC student approached Eggert in the tai chi class. The student was telling Eggert he studied with a master and knew some Fung Fu and ...

"He wasn't there to learn," Eggert said. "He wanted to show off and see if he could beat me."

The student didn't know Eggert avoids contact, that discipline and an inner calm is what he teaches, not the skills to win a bar fight.

"The very, very, very last thing I want to do, is to beat someone up," Eggert said.

The student came at Eggert and Eggert showed the student his hands and the student grabbed them and ...

"Oh, you got me!" Eggert yelled. And that was the end of it.

"Now he could go back and tell his buddies that he got me," Eggert said.

And that's totally OK with Justin Eggert.

His ego is not insecure, doesn't need a daily affirmation. Eggert enjoys the simple things in life. Like a raised eyebrow.

He's in China and he's at a Chinese restaurant and he orders in Chinese.

"What? Huh? How do you know Chinese?" he'll be asked.

"It's a long story," Justin Eggert will say.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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