Martial artist Naomi Even-Aberle teaches students during a class on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Gym owner brings out the best in students, community through martial arts

This story is about a calling.

And maybe it’s even more than that. Most times, when you discover your true path or purpose or vocation in life, you embrace it and run wild and call it out to the earth.

But for Naomi Even-Aberle, she resisted.

Her calling is in the martial arts, and it wasn’t until she discovered a way to make it her own and especially share it with the people and families around her that she felt safe to leap.

“This was never on my list,” Naomi says. “It was never part of the grand plan. It took me 10 years to realize how important this was to me!”

She’s right on time. Because today, not only is she embracing the beautiful traditions of martial arts, she owns a gym and is bringing its teachings out to her Black Hills communities, because she knows the bounty it serves.

“I want my community to know that the martial arts is there for them,” Naomi says. “You tell me what your need is, and I will find a way to make martial arts meet that need.”

She’s not asking for everyone to take up martial art as a sport, but rather begin to learn and live by its morals.

“My end goal is just to develop martial arts characters: What makes you a good leader? A good brother? A good sister? A good father or mother or community member? If we can focus on character development, then we can work with a community, one person at a time.”

Helping people to become their best self, for their community. She believes in this, and she believes in you.

“The martial arts is for everybody, because you get out of it what you put into it,” she assures. “Martial arts allows for the individuality to shine through just a bit more.”

And you should see Naomi shine.

A beginning in the martial arts

Naomi grew up in Wyoming and went to school at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, with a track scholarship.

“I thought I had it figured out,” she says. “I was going to do sports, and I was going to major in the arts.”

Then, she unexpectedly agreed to take a Taekwondo class with a college friend, and she was hooked.

“It was so much fun and made me think about my body and how I move in a completely different way than the regimented track schedule.”

And so a life in the martial arts began. Naomi continued to take classes on campus for a couple years, then started running kids classes on her own at the main gym in Aberdeen.

“It became a family unit for me, which is what I needed in college,” she says. “I was 12 hours from home!”

It also became a source of support. Naomi tore both ACLs and was no longer able to participate in track.

“I lost the only connection I had that I used to define myself my entire life,” she says. “But the martial arts helped me to retrain my body and retrain my mental capacity on what I’m capable of doing.”

And she began to see her best self. “It highlighted me,” Naomi says. “I didn’t have to be anybody else. I could be the nerdy artsy girl who sometimes wore suspenders, and still be a successful martial artist. I didn’t have to change who I was.

“It became my world.”

In her last year of college, Naomi began running her own martial arts classes in Ortonville, Minnesota. Once a week on Sundays, she drove 2 hours there and back to teach six students a week, and she did this for two years. Once her husband, Nik, graduated from college, they began applying for jobs, and Naomi was offered the arts education director position for the Rapid City Arts Council.

“It was amazing,” she says. “That was the first step I took outside of the gym, something just for me. I learned so much there about arts-based community development and using the arts as a way to connect with and reach people in a completely different level.

“I took time to separate the ‘Taekwondo’ me and the ‘arts’ me, and they never really merged.”

Until now.

About her gym

When Nik and Naomi moved to Rapid City, she spent 6 months refraining from martial arts. “But I was pulling my hair out! I just couldn’t not go to a gym!”

With so many ideas in mind, she wanted to open her own, but she wanted to respect her community first.

“My husband and I visited every single gym in the area, because we didn’t want to open a gym if this community already had what we were looking for,” she says. “What we found was, there are some great gyms, but there weren’t a lot of family-based programs. It was very sports-action, and we wanted traditional martial arts, which is about family and commitment.”

So she started one that did. Full Circle Martial Arts Academy opened in 2013, and she recently left her position with the Arts Council to focus on her gym full-time.

To fully embrace the calling.

“It has been scary and frustrating and wonderful,” she says. “It’s so much fun.”

At Full Circle, Naomi has no employees. She is the master instructor, her husband is the head instructor, and she has two adult students who help with classes, which include Taekwondo, Hapkio, Kumdo and Kumbup.

“I choose to teach these forms and their traditions because that is the system I learned from my instructors through oral traditions,” she says. “We focus on a special ‘recipe’ of the martial arts with a Korean influence, but we are open to bringing in all types of exercise (like boxing, yoga, weight lifting and stretching) to meet all of our students’ needs.”

Taking her classes on the road and into communities

Naomi has traveled to South Korea three different times for formal training, and the Korean traditions mean a lot to her. Her gym reflects that.

“Full Circle is very much steeped in tradition,” Naomi says, “both in the Korean culture and militaristic tradition on how there are certain ways you do things, and you don’t step outside of that.

“But, I’m also a rule breaker,” she smiles. “And I want to make the gym more than just a place where you go to train the arts. I want to make it an asset to the community and to those who participate in it and to their extended families.”

As part of that effort, Naomi has partnered with the Kyle Health Center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to offer martial arts classes to kids of all ages. That relationship began when she received an unexpected call from a woman wanting to start suicide prevention programming, and she wanted Naomi’s help.

“On the very first day in Kyle, we offered an open house, and there were over 150 people there,” she recalls, eyes wide. “There were towns from 30 to 40 miles away bussing in kids because they wanted this program! I was so thrilled and completely overwhelmed.”

She offered what she could. Every Thursday, Naomi travels to Kyle to teach three different classes to students in town and within a 15-mile radius. It’s going wonderfully.

“The chance to learn and to grow with the community has been amazing,” Naomi says. “The Kyle program has taught me that martial arts can be more than a class. It can be used to impact the community and to strengthen it.”

And so this is what she strives for. Her students participate in community clean-ups, and they spend time discussing respect for relationships within their families and in the community.

She’s learning and embracing the Lakota culture, but her students both in Kyle and in Rapid City are teaching her, too.

“My kids are some of the best kids in the world,” she says. “I learn so much from them individually, and every time I go to class, I just feel better when I’m done. I get to watch them grow and make connections and fail and pick themselves back up from that.

“My job is to make my kids feel like rock stars, and I’m honored that their parents and families allow me to be such an integral part of their lives.”

‘This is me’

This is only the beginning for Naomi. As she continues to teach her “kids” every day, she’s thinking about growth.

“For the sustainability of my gym, I need to look for adults who have a particular character and interest in teaching,” she says. “When I find those students, I slowly start to curate opportunities that give them learning skills so they can become an instructor.”

She’s thinking about Kyle, too.

“One of my adult students helps with classes in Kyle, and my goal is to get her trained and comfortable so that I can step out of my Kyle class, and my assistant instructor can run it. Then, her job is to find a student with similar character who can start to take over the Kyle gym, and my instructor can start a new gym somewhere else.

“Instead of just teaching them to be great martial artists, I want to teach them to be great leaders and teachers, so then they can teach someone else how to teach someone else …”

Naomi is so giving in this role. We have so much to benefit from, if we just open our hearts and minds to the teachings of martial arts.

Just like Naomi did.

“It was never my intention to do anything like this,” Naomi says, “and I never thought it would move to the point where it’s a lifestyle for me now. But this is not just something I do on the side, this is me.

“Everything I do and everything I learn through the martial arts makes me a better person, and now I need to give that back to my community.”

One person at a time.

Angela Tewalt, OTA


The Trailblazers program is sponsored by Midco®, the regional provider of business and residential internet and networking, cable TV, phone and commercial IT services.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated #WeAreOTA’s story.