Black Belt - - CONTENTS - — W. Thomas Smith Jr.

 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.

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