The path to the Olympic Games goes through Long Island craft fairs for teenagers Adam Rotbart and Logan Witte, who are hoping to gain spots on the first U.S. team to compete in karate.
To make their dreams a reality, the teens have started a small woodworking business, creating gifts to sell and help fund their travel to national and international competitions — a requirement if they are to be ranked internationally and qualify for the 2020 games in Tokyo.
Rotbart, 17, of Central Islip, and Witte, 16, of Islip Terrace, met 10 years ago in a karate class. The sport cemented their friendship, which has, in turn, fueled each boy’s talent and drive to succeed.
“We’ve always pushed each other,” Rotbart said. “When one of us was down, the other one picked us up. If there was something heavy and I couldn’t lift it, there wouldn’t be a word said — he [Witte] would just help me.”
The International Olympic Committee announced last year that it was adding karate to the 2020 program — a call to action for Rotbart and Witte, both members of the USA Karate Junior National Team.
Officials have not yet finalized the process for selecting Olympic competitors, although international rankings probably will play some role in how athletes will qualify, said Phil Hampel, chief executive of the USA National Karate-Do Federation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which is affiliated with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“We’ve got to try to make it,” Witte said.
Using their dads’ tools, the teens started cranking out holiday season gifts to sell, including wooden snowmen statues, reindeer, and a series of signs pointing the way to the North Pole. Their mothers had experience crafting and helped the teenagers get started with simple designs — the first was a snowman made out of one plank of wood. Over time, they honed their craft and started making the more ambitious creations.
“Logan and I have done everything possible to go above and beyond — not just to further our career, but to also make us better people,” Rotbart said.
Witte is quiet and thoughtful. Rotbart is boisterous and outgoing. They communicate with each other in a mostly unspoken shorthand reserved for best friends.
“I don’t even need to say anything,” Rotbart said. “He gets it.”
The teens said they share a deep sense of responsibility to their families and themselves and apply it to their karate and fitness training, dedication to their education, and helping their parents around the house.
It was that feeling of responsibility that led them to start the crafting venture two years ago.
“I definitely think about how hard it would be on my family if we didn’t fundraise and if all the pressure was on them,” Witte said. “It’s just incomprehensible to think that it’s all on your parents. Even when you don’t see all the bills and financials, you know it’s going to be hard.”
They train an average of five days a week at EGN International Karate in West Hempstead under a martial arts instructor known as a sensei. The routine is intense: a combination of cardiovascular exercise and fighting practice.
Regardless of whether they achieve their goal, the teenagers have grown dramatically in their quest, said Linda Witte, Logan Witte’s mother.
“These two boys, if they don’t make the Olympics, if they can’t get there — with what they’ve achieved and learned along the way — to me, I don’t care,” she said. “I’m so proud.”
Elhadji Ndour, the teens’ sensei and owner of EGN International Karate, said the boys learned their dedication to family and their goals where they train, known as a dojo.
“Both of them understand what karate is all about: practice, courtesy, controlling the temper and discipline,” Ndour said. “Every day they show the dedication of someone who wants to represent this country at the highest level of competition.”
Rotbart and Witte have sought sponsorship, so far unsuccessfully.
The teens have contributed thousands of dollars, primarily through the woodworking, to costs the families said have been as much as $40,000 a year for each boy to travel and participate in U.S. and international matches. Karate has taken the teenagers to Las Vegas, Croatia and Italy, among other destinations. The teens travel with their parents or sensei for competitions.
“My parents instilled in me to be generous,” Rotbart said. “I figured if I could do anything to help, that’s what I have to do. Also in karate, that’s what you learn. You learn to be generous, you learn to be kind, you learn to give back.”
The woodworking money has become a source of pride.
“We definitely didn’t think we’d do as well as we did with the crafting,” Logan Witte said. “Most days if we went to a craft fair we’d make $1,000, which is amazing because a couple days of crafting can pay for one or two [domestic] trips . . . It gets you excited to craft, excited to sell.”
Parents of both teens said they’re grateful they didn’t have to encourage the boys to help take on some of the cost.
“It just means the world to me that he’s willing to contribute to his own dreams and put the time and effort in,” said Jennifer Rotbart, Adam Rotbart’s mother. “We couldn’t be more proud of him, he’s just a hardworking kid.”
The money goes fast though, and the teens are looking for ways to increase their income. Their intense training routine and school obligations have confined their crafting effort to Christmastime for the past two years, although in 2018 they’re looking to expand and include other, year-round offerings.
“We’re going to try to expand what we do,” Logan Witte said. “We’re going to start making some American flag things.”
Witte and Rotbart are launching a GoFundMe campaign in the hopes that donors, or even a sponsor, will choose to support their quest for Olympic gold. For more information, go to gofundme.com/olympic-bound-long-island-boys