Shoreview girl climbs martial arts ranks

Sophia Keeley, 9, practiced her karate moves with instructor and uncle, Jake Erling, at The Art Martial Arts Studio in Falcon Heights on Sept. 19. (Linda E. Andersen/Review)

Shoreview’s real life karate kid, Sophia Keeley, 9, recently received her brown belt from Master Jake Erling, left. She plans to continue working hard to earn her black belt, which she hopes to get by the time she turns 10. (Linda E. Andersen/Bulletin)

Shoreview’s Sophia Keeley is seeing her hard work and dedication to the martial arts pay off. The 9-year-old karate kid received her brown belt -- the seventh of eight belts -- from Master Jake Erling at The Art Martial Arts Academy in Falcon Heights on Saturday, Sept. 14.

The fourth grader at Turtle Lake Elementary School has been studying karate since she was four and is poised to become one of the youngest students at The Art to climb up the ranks.

“In about a year I hope to get my black belt,” she says confidently.

A family of martial artists

Sophia is the third generation of martial artists in her family. Master Erling, a third-degree black belt, is her uncle, and her grandmother Susan Martinez and aunt Noelle Erling are second-degree black belts at the Art.

Martinez says the family first got into karate when her son Jake was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 5 years old.

“Karate builds self esteem, your mind and body,” she says. “Jake started when he was five and continued with it for a couple of years, got away from it and came back to it at 12, because his health was always so much better when he was in karate.”

Doctors told Martinez that her now 36-year-old son would not make it to the age of 18.  She says advancements in medicine and early intervention have helped him to live a healthy life, but she largely credits karate.

“He owes his life to martial arts and so do I,” Martinez says.

A hard working and multi-talented girl

Erling says his niece has worked hard to build her skills over the years.

“She wasn’t a natural right away, but she took so much pride in martial arts from the very beginning,” he says of Sophia. “She took to it at a really young age and worked her butt off.”

Sophia says she likes karate not only because it’s fun, but also because it teaches kids to stand up for themselves if they are being bullied.

Before moving to Shoreview in April, Sophia says she was bullied a couple of times at her old school in the west metro.

“I had to use my karate skills once to make a bully leave me alone. I used certain words and a certain karate stance, that’s all I did. The bully backed off right away,” she says.

Sophia says she loves living in Shoreview and attending classes at Turtle Lake, where she has made several close friends already. She also plays the violin in the school’s orchestra and sings in the choir.

“She can’t wait to get to school everyday,” her mom Amber Keeley says.

Keeley, not surprisingly, has also studied karate and is a red belt. Her passion, however, is dance. She is the director of the non-profit Out on a Limb Dance Company, which is located in a large space adjacent to the Art in the basement of the Falcon Crossing Mall in Falcon Heights.  Out on a Limb offers classes and workshops in classical ballet, jazz, acting, tap, Latin jazz and voice training.

Sophia also enjoys dancing and has been taking classes at the dance company since she was three.

“I love jazz and hip hop dancing,” Sophia says.

With all the activities the energetic youngster is involved in, one would think she would get burned-out, but her mom says that is not the case with Sophia.

“She handles it all really nicely and is really energetic,” Keeley says of her daughter. “Her wellbeing is obviously what’s most important to us. We make sure she eats well, gets plenty of sleep and does her homework. We never push her, she’s just a very driven girl.”

Sophia says when she has down time she likes to play Minecraft on Xbox or on her computer or tablet.

She also acts as a mentor to her 5-year-old sister Shelby, who is studying karate and is currently a yellow belt. 

Besides working toward earning her black belt, Sophia says she is looking forward to singing the Star Spangled Banner at the opening of the Sept. 29 Twins game with her school’s choir.

She will also be dancing in Out on a Limb’s production of Peter Pan at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul in March.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at or 651-748-7824.

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