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Unsung Heroes: Don and Heather Madden. Photo by: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The father and daughter team taking the martial arts world by storm

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Unsung Heroes: Don and Heather Madden. Photo by: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the month of March (also known as Irish American Heritage Month) IrishCentral is tapping into the heartbeat of the Irish American community. The Unsung Heroes series features inspiring individuals from across the US who do extraordinary work in their communities and respective fields. From advocates to artists, from local legends to dedicated educators, from a high school baseball team to dynamo nuns in their 80s, these people are making a difference and to them we tip our hats in thanks.

The family that fights together stays together.

That isn't always the case, but for Don and Heather Madden it's certainly been true. This father and daughter team have dedicated their lives to martial arts and to making the competitive field more equal for women. Together they run AKJU Team America, based in Ohio, which trains competitors and then brings those athletes to Karate and Ju-jitsu competitions around the world.

Don's accomplishments are many. In addition to AKJU Team America, he is also the founder and chairman of All American Karate Do Union, which is made up of over 200 clubs across the U.S. and internationally.

Earlier in his career, he taught martial arts and combat training at the NATO base in Iceland in 1990, he was the Head Coach of USA Karate and Ju-jitsu from 1981 - 1996, and in 1993 he was the coach of the first-ever USA Ju-jitsu team to compete in the Ju-jitsu World Cup. Throughout his years of teaching, he has worked with over 115 All-American champions. In 1998 he was inducted into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame, just one among many of his prestigious awards.

In tribute to his Irish heritage, he founded the Irish Cup in Karate and Ju-jitsu in Dublin in 1997.

He has also been instrumental in establishing equal rights for women competitors in Karate. Don founded the first-ever women's fighting competition in Curacao in 1981. Of this he has said, “We took a full team of both men and women. I talked to the other coaches and pushed the idea that women should have the same right to fight as men.”

The same year he pushed for women to be included in the first World Games, held in California. The demonstration match he set up wound up convincing the World Cup organizers to welcome female competitors to the games the following year which were held in Taiwan.

His daughter, Heather, follows in his footsteps. She began training at the young age of five, and began teaching after receiving her black bet at 16 years of age.

In addition to her work with her father, she also runs a number of her own Dojos in cities throughout Ohio, where she works with students ages three to adult. On the competitive stage, she placed fourth in the 1994 Ju-jitsu World Cup, held in Denmark, and fifth at the games the following year, held in Italy. In 1994, she also placed first in Ju-jitsu and mixed duo Ju-jitsu at the Goodwill Games in Russia. She is also a 10-time All American champion.

In Ireland, from 1996 - 1998 she was the gold medal winner in karate fighting, Ju-jitsu fighting and duo Ju-jitsu at the Irish Cup, the games her father helped found. Also at the Irish Cup, she coached the first five woman team to victory. She is currently ranked one of the top-10 Ju-jitsu competitors in the world.

Heather takes her knowledge beyond the field of martial arts and has also dedicated herself to teaching self-defense to women since 1995. In addtion, she teaches "Don't Talk to Strangers" to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America.

She is a many-time inductee of the Eastern USA International Black Belt Hall of Fame, and in 2009 was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy from the College of Advanced Education and Martial Arts Studies.

It's pretty safe to say these two kick... well, you know.

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