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By Griffin Swartzell

Elizabeth Sottile, manager of member services and events for USA Karate, isn’t a martial arts practitioner.

Her background is in sports medicine — she earned her bachelor’s of science degree in sports medicine from Springfield College in Massachusetts — but during her senior year, she realized she wasn’t passionate about being a trainer.

She moved to Colorado on a whim in 2014, right after she graduated. Here, she met one of her heroes: then-USA Swimming CEO and fellow Springfield College alumnus, Chuck Wielgus.

“I actually had met Chuck Wielgus … at the Olympic Training Center,” Sottile said. “He wrote this incredible recommendation, just based on the fact that we both went to Springfield College and I was a swimmer.”

That kicked off her transition into the business side of sports, though she knew little about it at the time — just like she knew nothing about karate when she started her current job. Sottile talked with the Business Journal about the thrill of learning, the Olympics and her goals.

Tell us about your job and what your day-to-day looks like.

The day-to-day is completely different because we have a small [national governing body]. So, depending on the time of year, I’m either putting together an event like a national championship or the U.S. Open, or I’m coordinating all of the travel and logistics for our national teams as the team leader. We have three trips a year — sometimes four, depending on the year — with a junior and senior national team, usually out of the country. [My job is] getting all of the logistics together for that for travel, for competition, getting letters for them to get out of school, all that fun stuff. That’s a huge part, and then the other part is the day-to-day customer service, member services. [That includes] helping people with memberships, buying patches, registering for events. The new one, actually, that’s been a challenge is recommendation letters for college for our team members. [Then there’s] answering phones and typical customer service, like helping people find clubs, answering questions about karate, eligibility questions: ‘How do you make the Olympics?’

How did you first get involved with karate?

It’s a long story. … I went to Springfield College in Massachusetts. I’m from the East Coast, and I majored in sports medicine. … I actually got a head injury in my junior year of college, and through my senior year, I realized that I was no longer going to be an athletic trainer, and it wasn’t my passion. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. …

I ended up working for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox in marketing and promotions, which was a blast. After that season ended, I actually went over and worked for the Colorado Springs Sports Corp. An incredible group of mentors and people in my networking community connected me with different positions, so when I was at the Sports Corp., I was an event coordinator, and I fell in love with events working under Doug [Martin] and Aubrey [McCoy] … and then Tom Osborne and Jeff Mosher. I learned how to run an event from start to finish, like planning it, executing it and then all the follow-up. I never knew the process, and I had a blast. … While I was there, they actually sent me to the USA Karate open in 2016 in Las Vegas, because they needed some help. While I was there, I ended up meeting Phil Hampel, who’s [USA Karate’s] CEO. We bonded, and he just saw a void in USA Karate that I could fill. We talked a bunch, and he had me do some freelance work for them. I actually went over and interned in sport performance at the United States Olympic Committee during that time. … I worked in acrobatics and combat sports. Since we [in USA Karate] were still a pan-American sport, I was working with the other sports portfolios of taekwondo, judo, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and diving. … When my internship was over, I came back to USA Karate full time, and then at that time, I ended up being the only employee. … Phil [Hampel] and I moved the NGB over to an Olympic sport, and it’s been an incredible four years of not only following our senior team, but we now have one confirmed athlete who is the first U.S. athlete to compete in karate in the Olympics. …

It’s a very cool thing, working for a small NGB. … It’s a lot of work. I absolutely love how close I am with our membership. And I love planning events, and then going to them and working through it; having our athletes come, watching them make a national team and then putting together all the logistics and operations for that national team to go to a Pan-American championship or a world championship. [I love] being on the side of the tatami [the foam surface where bouts take place] when those kids go out and compete and medal and stand on a podium. … This job fell in my lap in the most perfect way, and I’m so thankful for Phil, who kind of saw that in me, because I am still pretty young. … I can’t see myself leaving anytime soon.

Given that you don’t come from a karate background, how has that been a challenge and how has it given you a perspective that’s made you better at your job?

I’ve been successful at it because of the leadership in the community. They welcomed me into the sport. … The hardest part for me was understanding the sport of karate — just the basics like understanding belt rank, scores, styles, the difference between the katas or what even is a kata. I am embarrassed to say this because I found out [just recently] that karate means open hand, or empty hand for fighting. … You can drive to any shopping mall and you can see a karate dojo, but it doesn’t mean that they practice the sport of karate, where it’s like fighting in competition. There’s a whole traditional side. [I’ve also had to learn how to] talk about karate, so if somebody calls me who has been practicing karate for 40 years, and they’re talking to me about dan certifications, [I can understand what they’re talking about.]

When I would go to competitions, I wouldn’t understand scoring — so at first it was cool to watch, but it wasn’t enjoyable. So Phil would sit and he would explain stuff to me, or if we were in a competition and I would have downtime, I would sit with the referees … and they would explain to me as we’re watching a match what’s happening, or our national team members [would sit] with me in the stands and explain what’s going on. … All of our members have all played a part in kind of helping me understand the sport of karate. [It was a] challenge, but at the same time, it made it more fun because I never felt like I was dumb, or I was an outsider. I always was welcomed in. … It made my job more fun, because every time I sat and watched a final at the U.S. Open or just a regular competition, I learned more about karate.

How has the Coronavirus pandemic changed the way your job works? 

Well, it’s changed because we don’t have our events. So far, the U.S. Open got canceled. Nationals are still up in the air. Our senior pan-American championship was canceled, and we’re waiting on a few more international events. … It’s very interesting because now we have to brainstorm different ways to connect with our members, because if you don’t have a competition to train for, there are a lot of people who will walk away from the sport. … As the team leader, that’s been interesting, because we have all of these junior and senior national team members who still need to practice because we’re not sure if the world championship [will be] canceled. But every single one of them is in a different situation … so we have to figure out a way that we can reach all of them in a similar way.

What are your career goals?

When I started five years ago, the goal was to get karate in the Olympics and to put it on the biggest stage in the world. … We had a few [athletes] that were hopeful, and we got [one athlete confirmed] into the Olympics before the Olympics were postponed. … My short-term goal now is going to be [supporting] them and making sure they have what they need. Now they have an extended amount of time to train to make it to the Olympics. We would love to bring eight athletes. We are not on the agenda to be included in the 2024 Olympics, so this is our shot. And then for [Phil Hampel and I], our obvious long-term goal is to get on the agenda for the 2028 Olympics.