Never Give Up – The Sensei John Marrable Story

Never Give Up, the last line of the IOGKF Dojo Kun; a mantra that has proven sacred to many martial artists and one that continues to be the basis of martial arts training around the world. This philosophy of perseverance despite hardship is one of the most important values learnt during a karate-kas journey towards becoming a black belt.

In Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate the warriors’ spirit is of utmost importance and there are few examples as noteworthy as that of Sensei John Marrable (6th Dan IOGKF).

On the 24th of May 1967 Sensei John Marrable, then age 10, and his brother were playing near the beaches of Dunbar, Scotland. Going against the better judgment of their mother, they started climbing one of the nearby cliffs. At about 19:55 pm that evening, the cliff Sensei John was climbing gave way and he fell to the ground below, breaking his T5 vertebrae. After spending 12 days in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh he was flown to Stoke Mandeville Spinal Hospital where he was to receive rehabilitation.  The accident left Sensei John paralyzed from the bottom of his sternum down. Sensei John went on to spend the next 3 months and his 11th birthday in bed. After another 6 months of rehabilitation and learning how to use a wheelchair, he was finally ready to take on the world as a paraplegic.

“One of the first mottos I learnt was ‘never give up’. Little did I realize that those words would be so important for students of Higaonna Sensei.” – Sensei John Marrable

The cliff where Sensei John Marrable had his accident in 1967.

I personally first became aware of Sensei John Marrable in 2004 during my first trip to Okinawa for the IOGKF International Budosai when I first got to watch his wheelchair self-defense demonstration. It is difficult to describe how inspiring it was to see someone in a wheelchair not only doing karate, but doing it so well as to be able to defend himself against two attackers with knives. I was lucky enough to meet him personally a few years later and I continue to be in awe every time I get to see him train. After reading one of his most recent posts on Facebook commemorating his accident in 1967 I could not help but to reach out and ask him to share a little more about his karate journey.

When did you start karate and why?

“After my accident in May 1967, my father often mentioned “mind over matter” and when the TV series “Kung Fu” started I knew that I wanted to learn a martial art.  Then along came the Bruce Lee movies and I was hooked. Sadly, no one in the UK in the early 1970’s would teach me karate as I “was in a wheelchair”, and no one would teach me kung-fu as I was not Chinese.  So, I started learning from books.

It wasn’t until I immigrated to New Zealand that in 1975 I joined a kyokushin karate club.  The club was affiliated to Sensei John Jarvis’s organization called Rembuden. In 1978 we left kyokushin and started training under Higaonna Sensei.”

Were there any major setbacks or challenges during your karate journey?

“The biggest setback was initially that no one would teach me, and back then in the early years some fellow students did not take me serious as a martial artist.  This, I am glad to say has changed over time.”

When did you receive your Shodan, and your most recent Dan?

“I was graded to Shodan (1st Dan) in 1980 and my most recent grade was Rukudan (6th Dan) in 2016, in Okinawa.  Higaonna Sensei has graded me for each of my Dan gradings.”

The first time I met Higaonna Sensei was in 1977/78 when he first visited New Zealand.  Sensei John Jarvis had previously met Higaonna Sensei in Tokyo and invited him to New Zealand for a gasshuku. I was a green belt and after over three hours of grueling training, Higaonna Sensei called me forward and took his black belt off and gave it to me.  He explained it was not a grading but a sign of his respect for my training spirit and dedication.  I was very humbled to have been given his belt.  He told me to put it on my wall and to look at it each day before I train.

In July 1980, Higaonna Sensei graded me to Shodan and he said with a smile, “Now you can wear my belt”.  I have only worn it a couple of times and it is one of my most prized possession.  I have been advised by Alanna Higaonna that it is a special obi as it has Sensei’s full name on it.”

Sensei John Marrable (6th Dan IOGKF) alongside Morio Higaonna Sensei (10th Dan and IOGKF Supreme Master)

What is the most important lesson karate has taught you? 

“Never give up.  We are always learning.”

Any goals or future ambitions you may have?

“Through my training I am in excellent health and shape for a person who has been a paraplegic for over 50 years so I hope to continue to train and teach for as long as I can!”

What would be your advice for fellow karateka?

“Never stop training.  Even if you just stretch, today it is better than doing nothing. Training gives you energy!”

Sensei John has been practicing martial arts for more than 40 years and during his journey has gone on to represent New Zealand multiple times in numerous paraplegic sports including swimming and table tennis. He currently lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, where he is works as a karate instructors, self-defense instructor and motivational speaker.

On behalf of IOGKF Namibia, I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to Sensei John Marrable for his willingness to share his story and for continuing to inspire karate-ka all around the world.

-Written by Stefan van der Merwe