MARTIAL ARTS DISCIPLINE DRIVES GLOBAL EXPEDITION LEADER
Listening to Maj. Gen. Tom Mullikin describe one of his more arduous journeys to the summit of one of the highest mountains is like reading about the late British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led an Antarctic expedition in 1914 and was stranded there with his men until 1916.
From his Mullikin Martial Arts studio, located in a complex that also houses his law practice and his nonprofit Global Eco Adventures in Camden, South Carolina, the 56-year-old instructor recalls a few of his summits as being harsh environments plagued by unimaginable cold and unforgiving winds. He remembers his feet cracking and bleeding while he and his men were burdened with extreme loads. At times, he struggled to maintain consciousness at the high altitudes, which bring lowered air pressures.
The fortitude needed to scale mountains like Alaska’s Denali comes from somewhere deep. Some might argue it stems from Mullikin’s experiences in the U.S. Army and the conditioning required to become an Army master fitness trainer. Others might surmise it grew out of the training he underwent to become search-and-rescue qualified in the all-volunteer South Carolina State Guard, the 1,000-person defense force he commands.
But to hear Mullikin tell it, his smile, his fortitude and, yes, his grit all come from the discipline he learned as a martial artist. For years, he’s studied everything from taekwondo and ninjutsu to tai chi and karate.
“These ancient art forms — and, with them, the mental control, the mental focus, the stretching, the controlled breathing and the various stress-relieving techniques, as well as the disciplining factors — have served as key drivers in the success of my climbing,” Mullikin says. “These things have also been key to my business success.
“It’s doubtful I could effectively deal with the physical, mental and emotional stress in extreme sports and in the businesses I run — many of those business operations having to do with crisis management and finding solutions in time-sensitive and under tougher-than-normal conditions — without the physical, mental and emotional tools acquired through martial arts training.”
For instance, in the physical realm, Mullikin says it was the seemingly simple martial arts sub-discipline of stretching that enabled him to function efficiently as a wilderness expedition leader. Years of ninjutsu-based stretching not only prevented the tendons and ligaments in his legs and feet from degrading (he suffers from a congenital disease) but also developed those tendons and ligaments beyond the strength of their counterparts in an average man.
“Many people suffering from the feet abnormalities that I had at birth often have serious lifelong degenerative tendon issues, and they wind up in wheelchairs as adults,” he says. “Martial arts conditioning literally saved me from this, and it indeed took me to a higher plane in terms of physical fitness.”
He also benefits from mental and emotional fitness. Like so many boys growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, he was fascinated by the likes of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. Mullikin was an aggressive kid who loved to fight, and he wanted to learn to fight well. “I was extremely competitive in high-school sports and equally competitive as a fighter,” he says.
Fighter, indeed. Mullikin tried to join the U.S. Marine Corps as a young man but was turned away because of his feet, which
he no longer saw as an obstacle to anything. But the Corps held fast to its exacting physical standards when he attempted to earn a slot in Officer Candidate School. “A Navy doctor made the decision to reject my application,” he says, “but that didn’t deter me.”
The U.S. Army gave him a chance, and he received a commission as an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where he served in a variety of capacities, including that of international legal officer for the 360th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne).
Mullikin sparred regularly until he was in his late 40s, when ruptured disks that resulted from a rough parachute landing brought his kumite to a close. Today, it’s all about the art for him.
“It always has been, really,” he says. “The arts of the various disciplines are what have enabled me in so many ways. There is so much to the mental, emotional and spiritual aspect of martial arts. And it’s all tied together to make the whole person.”
Mullikin says he’s particularly enjoyed studying the contemplative and spiritual approaches to life propagated by the Shaolin monks and the Chinese and Taiwanese masters he’s had the opportunity to train with.
“Though the Eastern artists may come from a different faith or worldview than my own, the way in which they come to a place of peace in their lives is something I’ve incorporated into my own life and work,” Mullikin says. “Today, when I climb or scuba dive, my strength, my ultimate power [and] my overall life success all boil down to that which I learned from the great masters in the martial arts.”
Mullikin often tells people, “There’s nothing but blue sky and opportunity in front of us.” It sounds a bit platitudinous. To those who know him, however, it’s evidence of the never-surrendernever-quit philosophy he developed through decades of martial arts training. During that time, he was always striving, always perfecting himself and always guiding others toward that same “blue sky.”
What’s next for this black belt? In December, Mullikin plans to climb Chimborazo, a 20,548-foot mountain in Ecuador. Its summit is the point on the earth’s surface that’s farthest from the planet’s center (because of the equatorial bulge). He’s also on track to become the first human being to climb the world’s seven summits and record scuba dives in all five oceans. In fact, he has already logged the dives — including certified ice dives — and has climbed four of the peaks.
“The things I have learned from the great martial artists — things like deep meditative practices, principles of relieving stress at the physical stress points, breath control and other particulars of the martial arts — are things I take with me everywhere I go,” he says. “I take them up into the mountains.”
Maj. Gen. Tom Mullikin, martial artist.
One of Tom Mullikinʼs goals is to dive in all five of the earth's oceans.
Martial arts training has enabled Tom Mullikin to explore the planet.