Teen instructor brings life experience to special-needs martial arts class

March 19, 2013

By Dan Aznoff

Skyline High School sophomore Damian Banki learned to understand the meaning of special by watching his mother turn the special needs of his older brother diagnosed with autism into strength for his family.

The 16-year-old red belt in taekwondo has applied the same strong spirit to help special-needs students build self-esteem that extends beyond the mats of their martial arts studio.

Contributed Megan Boss (right), a 22-year-old taekwondo student who has thrived under the tutelage of Damian Banki, competes in the 2012 True Martial Arts Tournament on the Sammamish Plateau.

Megan Boss (right), a 22-year-old taekwondo student who has thrived under the tutelage of Damian Banki, competes in the 2012 True Martial Arts Tournament on the Sammamish Plateau.

“Damian is wise beyond his years,” said Mitch Boss, of Bellevue, who enrolled his daughter Megan in the special-needs martial arts class with Banki at True Martial Arts on the Sammamish Plateau. “Martial arts is all about flexibility and strength. But, it’s also about mental discipline. Damian has the unique ability to combine the physical aspects with personal respect.”

At 12, Banki became one of the youngest students ever promoted to full instructor in the 31 years the school has operated near Pine Lake. The young teacher studied alongside his mother, Lynne Banki, who just happens to hold her own first-degree black belt.

Skyler Zoppi, the chief instructor at True Martial Arts, asked Lynne for help when he was forced to deal with an irate parent with a special-needs child who had been asked to leave a class for being too disruptive.

“We want to accommodate all of our students,” Zoppi said. “I turned to Lynne after we received a nasty letter from the unhappy parent. After all, Lynne had raised Damian and his older brother, Caspian. Lynne and Damian jumped right in to design a class that was open to everybody.”

Damian said he learned a great deal about dealing with people from the love and commitment his mother showed to his older brother while they were growing up. Caspian, who is on the autism spectrum, is now living on his own while attending college in Colorado.

Damian modified the requirements for students to progress through the ranks of colored belts associated with martial arts, Zoppi said. The young instructor then adapted the rules of the sport to fit the physical limitations of special-needs students. He initiated modified steps between belts that allowed students in his class to earn stripes on their belt to reward mastering specific kicks or a new stance.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art famous for its long low stances, high kicks, jump kicks and flying kicks. It is the world’s most popular martial art in terms of the number of practitioners. It combines combat techniques with meditation and philosophy.

Zoppi is a fourth-degree black belt who owns and operates True Martial Arts with his mother Laurel. He said the weekly special-needs martial arts class, commonly called SNAP at the studio, has attracted students beyond the community and from as far away as Seattle and Tacoma. In addition to the unique curriculum of the class, Zoppi said martial arts training offers families with special needs an affordable alternative to expensive activities that are normally associated with such children.

The expense associated with individuals with special needs is a sensitive topic for Lynne Banki. She established Autism Day WA in 2001 to bring together caregivers and service providers with families across the Eastside who have been touched by autism. The annual event at Jubilee Farms in Carnation is free for participants and vendors. Lynne teaches the SNAP class developed by her son to students from the Tavon Center in Issaquah and at the APL School in Seattle during the week, while Damian is in class at Skyline.

The teenage instructor admitted he must pay special attention to the language he uses in class each week to be certain each student understands the techniques and can progress at his or her own pace. In addition to students on the autistic spectrum, Damian said his refined curriculum has also been successful with students who have trouble with focus, including his pupils afflicted with ADHD.

Lynne described her youngest son’s teaching style as “creative and patient.”

“Damian is very awesome,” said Megan Boss, a 22-year-old student who has thrived under the tutelage of Banki. “He teaches me about sparring and using weapons. But, he does everything with respect.”

Megan has excelled in a variety of individual sports at the Special Olympics. Mitch Boss said taekwondo has provided Megan with the mental discipline to “shine at team sports as well.”

“Damian gave Megan the ability to be feisty,” her father said with a smile. “And feisty can be a very good thing.”


Dan Aznoff was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative work into toxic waste. He is now a freelance journalist who lives in Bellevue and specializes in preserving stories for future generations. Reach him at da@dajournalist.com.


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One Response to “Teen instructor brings life experience to special-needs martial arts class”

  1. Paul on March 22nd, 2013 2:38 am

    What a wonderful story. I train in kickboxing so I understand the physical and mental benefits training can bring.

    I also work as a “support worker” for the Autism Association of Western Australia, so I understand what it takes to look after people with special needs.

    Good on Damien for using his life experience to create a training system tailored to special needs students, very inspirational!


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