Edgar Hernandez and Giana Piccolotti, both 11, seem harmless enough.
Both are polite, kind, well-spoken kids who do well in school.
The two West Orange County youths are normal enough — so long as you don’t take into account the feeling of dread opponents are overcome with when they realize they will have to fight either Giana or Edgar at a karate competition.
Competing out of Stoneybrook Karate in Winter Garden under Sensei Tim Hilgenberg, the two middle-school students have been stacking up awards and accolades, with each student nearly having more medals than can fit around their neck.
Most recently, Giana and Edgar’s achievements at AAU Karate Nationals in Fort Lauderdale led to them being named to the AAU Junior Karate National Team.
Giana won a Kumite National Championship, also placing third in the Kata National Championships, and Edgar placed second in his respective Kumite National Championship.
The strong finishes automatically qualified them for the national team, and now the two youths will have the opportunity of a lifetime in getting to travel to Poland, Hungary, Japan and Hawaii in the coming months. Both Giana and Edgar are currently raising money to fund their trips through online donation services and will depart for Poland in mid-October.
It has been quite a ride so far for Stoneybrook Karate’s star students, and through it all they’ve displayed another quality: humility.
“For them [the training has] also helped them stay grounded,” Sensei Gian Carlo Rivera, who trains the kids along with Hilgenberg, said. “They are so much better than most of the other athletes, but they don’t act like it.”
A promise kept
Ron Piccolotti, Giana’s father, remembers walking with his daughter to the car one night shortly after she began karate.
Giana, then 8 and a natural competitor, had thrived at several other sports, but Ron — who himself has a background in karate and martial arts — had hoped she would take to the art the way he had.
Walking to the car that night, Ron’s hopes were rewarded with a promise.
“We were walking out to the car and I said ‘so how are you liking it?’” Ron recalled. “She said ‘Dad, if you let me stay in this, I love this so much, I’ll go farther than anybody you’ve ever seen.’
“She never stopped, she just kept going and going and going. It’s a great thing.”
Giana, a student at Bridgewater Middle School, smiles when mentioning that some girls admit to not wanting to fight her. Though she can be shy at first, Hilgenberg praised her for her balance of passion and tenacity.
“Gianna is a great girl, she’s an honor roll student,” Hilgenberg said. “She has a kind heart — except for when she gets in the ring.”
Ron intentionally did not tell Giana where the national team would be competing until she had made it. Ecstatic about getting to travel and see the world, Giana says she is most looking forward to seeing Japan — and that excitement will drive her to work even harder.
“I was really excited [when she learned the destinations] and I’m going to start training harder and harder and try to get the gold,” Giana said.
A second family
Rosa Hernandez, Edgar’s mother, has a special appreciation for the work that Hilgenberg does.
Despite the competitive nature of the dojo at Stoneybrook Karate — it is, after all, a competition gym — Hilgenberg and Rivera have created a family atmosphere among their students and the students’ parents.
For Edgar, that family atmosphere has meant the world, as tragedy has tested his resolve at a young age.
“We lost my husband in 2012, and I’m a cancer patient,” Rosa said. “Thanks to Sensei Tim, [Edgar] will keep going [in karate] … Sensei didn’t want him to quit.
“There was times when Edgar actually wanted to quit, but Sensei was there and Gian Carlo, too, to support them and to let him know that he has another family here.”
Hilgenberg has observed as Edgar has dealt with the loss of his father, Larry Hernandez, and his mother’s declining health, and — along with Rivera — he has been there to support him as he continues to chase his dreams.
“Edgar has his days where he struggles with it and sometimes he has his competitions where he struggles with it, too,” Hilgenberg said. “But I think the best thing with Edgar is when he focuses that energy and focuses that emotion, he does it for his dad.
“He really has dedicated his life to his father, and his father would be very proud of him right now.”
In spite of everything, Edgar is a model student and helps his mother at home, acting as “the little man in the house,” as Rosa tells it. For Edgar, having a second family at the dojo has helped him to cope with the sadness he has felt as tragedy struck his own.
“It’s meant a lot … when my dad passed I stayed here because I thought of everyone here as family — and they’re still family now,” said Edgar, who will be starting school at Gotha Middle School this fall. “I’m really appreciative of [Hilgenberg]. I thank God that I was able to start this because if I didn’t I would be home, lonely [and] sad.”
Sky’s the limit
The excitement over the coming months for Edgar and Giana is likely only matched by the anticipation of what could occur farther down the road.
At just 11, both have become names to know within karate and martial arts circles up and down the East Coast and beyond.
For his part, though, Hilgenberg says he has to be sure to check his enthusiasm when it comes to Edgar and Giana’s accomplishments, in the hopes of continuing to help them elevate further.
“I really can’t be impressed with these kids — I have to push them outside their box,” Hilgenberg said. “Pushing them outside their box and getting them to train harder and harder and harder, every time, and not be complacent of where their status is — that’s what’s going to make them champions.”
Hilgenberg does smile, though, when listing what could possibly be ahead for his two star pupils — national teams, more trips around the world, world competitions, possibly even the Olympics and movies.
“The sky is the limit for these kids,” Hilgenberg said. “They’re just that good.”
How you can help
Both Giana Piccolotti and Edgar Hernandez are raising money to fund their participation as members of the AAU Junior Karate National Team, which will compete in Poland, Hungary and Japan.
For more information about either competitor, or about Stoneybrook Karate, contact Tim Hilgenberg at (407) 654-5424 or stop by the dojo at 15501 Stoneybrook West Parkway, Winter Garden, Suite 125.