The Karate Kid

December 9, 2021

Brian Irr ’09, MS ’11 never dreamed of competing in karate at the Olympics when he took up the Japanese martial art at age eight in Lockport, NY.  It wasn’t an Olympic sport at that time.  Nor was it when Irr began competing and winning medals internationally, including a gold medal at the 2019 Pan American games and a bronze at the 2015 Pan American games.  

That changed this summer when, after decades of campaigning, karate kicked its way onto the Olympic stage.  Brian Irr was there for the history-making debut.  

Irr represented the United States as a member of the first Olympic men’s karate team in Tokyo.  He fought in the 75-kilogram class of kumite (pronounced coo-meh-tay), the name for sparring competition. 

“It’s amazing to be a part of the first and only Olympics for karate – the sport will not be included again in future games,” Irr says. “I've always wanted to attend the Olympics – I never thought that I would be there as an athlete.”

Irr’s shot at Olympic glory began in his hometown of Newfane, NY, when his parents enrolled he and his younger brother in karate lessons as an outlet for the two rambunctious boys.  Before long, Irr began to qualify for and compete in local, regional and national karate tournaments.  

Irr continued with karate while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in athletic training and master’s degree in physical education.  He balanced night classes with internships and training, and traveled regularly to spar at junior world championships and on the junior team at the Pan American games. 

“The knowledge I gained at Canisius helped me in my sport,” he says. “I gained an understanding of my body, how it functions and how I can push my limits in training without overdoing it.”

Those limits were put to the test following news that the International Olympic Committee added karate to the summer 2020 games.  “For this opportunity to occur at this point in time during my competitive career, I knew it was special and that I had to make the push to really pursue this full-time,” says Irr, who is ranked No. 9 in the world.  

Without a job or even a place to stay, Irr made the necessary move to Dallas, TX to train at the Academy of Classical Karate, renowned for producing champions in the martial arts and in life.  He spent the better part of the next two years traveling the world to qualify for the Olympic team.  The physical, financial and emotional tolls were great but Irr eventually secured the opportunity of a lifetime following a qualification tournament in Paris.  

As part of the four-man U.S. Olympic karate team, Irr went up against teams from Saudi Arabia and Iran.  He advanced to the elimination round before being defeated by Croatia.  But for Irr, just being at the Olympics was a triumph in itself.  

“To me, the most exciting part about the whole process has been the journey: the obstacles that were seen and overcome, God’s provisions of the opportunities I had and just how all the pieces kind of fit together.” 

Irr is currently teaching physical education at an elementary school in Plano and training for his next competition – at the world karate championships in Dubai.