Friedmann receives lifetime achievement award for martial arts prowess

Alberto Friedmann hasn’t let a diagnosis of a degenerative joint disease stop him from doing anything he has wanted to do in life.

In August, the exercise physiologist in the Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Science and seventh-degree black belt received a lifetime achievement award from the Southeastern Martial Arts Hall of Fame in Orlando, Fla., an honor given to only a few each year. The coach of the U.S. National Martial Arts team that competes around the world, Friedmann is a well-decorated champion and is considered one of the top martial arts instructors in the country.

Alberto Friedmann demonstrating battojutsu (Japanese swordsmanship) when receiving his lifetime achievement award from the Southeastern Martial Arts Hall of Fame last month. He was using a 350-year-old katana, a Japanese long sword, to cut a tatami, a rolled rice mat.

Although Friedmann already has been inducted into seven halls of fame, he said one of the highlights of receiving this honor was the opportunity to meet others in the field whom he had been wanting to work with for years. A sports nutrition conference, held in the same location as Friedmann’s conference, was attended by many current and former athletes, and the two groups mingled.

“I’m from Boston originally, so it was really neat when Kevin Tolar, a former Boston Red Sox pitcher, asked me for my autograph and a photo,” Friedmann said.

Although the martial arts are not an Olympic sport (only one kind of tae kwon do is recognized), the 40-year-old Friedmann has won hundreds of competitions worldwide in karate; kobudo, which involves using weapons; tae kwon do; and hapkido. He holds 12 gold, two silver and two bronze medals from World Games competitions, three World Championship titles and dozens of other awards and recognitions.

But don’t think Friedmann has gotten a big head from all of these victories. “The more important part is that I’ve probably lost 100 for every one I’ve won,” he said.

Friedmann started martial arts at age 12, then at 14 was diagnosed with osteopenia, or low bone density. Diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at age 21, doctors told him he would be in a wheelchair by age 25. But his determination and athleticism have kept him out of one.

“We all have a good chance of being in a wheelchair at some point in our lives,” he said. “There is no point in giving up what you enjoy. I was doing this long before I was diagnosed.”

The tall and lanky Friedmann shrugs off his disease and attributes his participation in the martial arts for keeping him healthy.

“I’m a big fan of exercise and movement,” he said. “Nothing bad comes from being in good physical shape. Exercise is good for any population.”

In addition to training world-class athletes, he also teaches martial arts and self-defense to children and adults with special needs.

In 2004, he carried the Olympic torch in St. Louis on the same day he left to compete in Barcelona in the World Peace Games.

Friedmann stopped competing in 2006, but he still trains regularly and is working on his eighth-degree black belt. A 10th-degree black belt is the highest one can go in the sport.

Though he has had many surgeries due to the Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and faces more, Friedmann is always looking for his next challenge. He is engaged to be married, is working on a doctorate in physiology and may return to competition for the Maccabiah Games, one of the largest sporting events in the world, in Israel next summer.