Graduate student overcomes disability
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Gold and bronze medals hang proudly from Malaika Kambon's neck. Though the hardware represents her accomplishments in taekwondo, they are a constant reminder of her disability -- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a chronic medical condition with life-threatening effects.

The 56-year-old SF State graduate student still smiles, though, knowing nothing can take away what she's been able to accomplish.

"Taekwondo has helped me get through so much in life," Kambon said, gripping her medals.

Kambon, a green belt SF State Club Taekwondo member, is a national competitor who qualified for the Amateur Athletics Union National Taekwondo Championship for the last three consecutive years. In 2007 and again in 2009, she traveled across the country to compete in the national competition in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. From both competitions, she's brought home with her inspiration and gold medals.

"I was flying high," Kambon said. "I mean, qualifying was exciting enough, but to win was extraordinary."

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that combines combat techniques, self-defense and meditation. The Korean national sport emphasizes foot and hand combat.

"Malaika is truly unique in that she has every valid excuse to complain and cop out, yet she is one of the hardest working individuals in the club," said Bill Dewart, coach and professor of SF State's Club Taekwondo. "Younger students look up to her and admire her persistence."

Dewart, an eighth degree black belt in his own right, has known Kambon for four years. Kambon insists that her coach has been instrumental in her martial arts involvement.

"He is the first coach I've come across who is willing to work so closely with persons with disabilities," Kambon said.

In 2001, Kambon's life was turned upside down when she was exposed to toxic fumes at her workplace that could have killed her, and ultimately triggered MCS. Her vocal cords were severely damaged and, as a result, Kambon's voice was reduced to almost nothing for several years.

"I went from running three or more miles a day, to gasping for breath after 10 or 15 steps," Kambon said. "If I wanted to talk to someone, they would have to put their ears right up next to me."

MCS is a hypersensitivity and allergic-type reaction to pollutants and chemical fumes in general. For Kambon, it means that too much dust, a strong perfume or even the scent of a felt tip marker can cause a severe difficulty in breathing and possibly lead to cardiac arrest.

"If I'm out somewhere and it's too dusty, I'm going home," she said. "It could kill me."

Despite such a debilitating condition, Kambon has shown immense determination.

"I knew I had two choices," she said. "I could sit an a corner and do nothing, or I could work to overcome my situation."

She didn't just chose the latter, she ran with it.

Kambon began speech therapy to try and regain what she had lost. But it's taekwondo that she credits her recovery to. It was when she started to train again that she regained her voice.

"All of a sudden, I was noticing more sound coming out of my mouth than normal," Kambon said.

Those who knew her couldn't believe what they were hearing.

"People would call and say, 'someone just called impersonating you,' and I would have to tell them that it was, in fact, me," she said.

Before her accident, Kambon had been involved with many different martial arts, taking a specific interest in taekwondo. She knew, however, that returning to the sport she had grown to deeply admire would require a fresh start.

"I had to learn everything all over again," she said.

"She comes here to train from Oakland and gives everything she has," said DeLonzo Pope, Club Taekwondo president, mentioning that Kambon is the oldest and hardest working member of the club. "That's why she's a national champion."

Both of her journeys to Florida were made possible by emotional and financial support from her friends as well as local businesses. Her taekwondo family also helped fund her trip in 2007, but club restrictions forced her to look for funds elsewhere for the 2009 trip. Dewart wrote a letter of recommendation for the 2009 competition and as a result, Kambon received financial support from more than 15 local businesses and individuals.

"I did go by myself on both occasions, but really, I had tremendous help and support from my friends and teammates," Kambon said. "I couldn't have possibly done any of this without them."

"The thing I love most about taekwondo is that it truly is a family," Dewart said. "That's the spirit we want to promote here on campus and for that, Malaika is a role model."

"The club loves Malaika," Pope said. "She has set the bar high, and that's exactly the kind of attitude we need."

That support is what Kambon accredits her gold medals to. In 2007, she won gold in points sparring and bronze in forms. In 2009, she decided not to compete in sparring but took home the gold in forms.

Sparring is free-form fighting that is officiated and scored based on legal kicks and punches. Forms competition is based on the competitors' ability to demonstrate stances and is scored based on beauty, grace, rhythm, focus, power and technique according to the AAU rules.

"For the longest time I had no idea what Malaika had been through," Pope said. "Even now, she has a broken toe, but she won't let that keep her from training."

Kambon hopes to study photojournalism at SF State but says that budget cuts have made it nearly impossible to get the classes she needs. She views this as just another roadblock that she will overcome with the strength and determination she gets from taekwondo.

"Taekwondo is as a microcosm of our lives," Dewart said. "If you watch how you practice and how dedicated you are, you'll start to notice similarities in the rest of your life."

Dewart's words ring especially true for his hardest working pupil.

"It's more than kicking and punching," she said of taekwondo. "You truly learn to center yourself and that's something you can utilize for life."

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