RICHLAND -- Few things give Nancy Foster-Mills of Richland more joy than breaking something.
Usually it's a stack of 1-inch pine boards.
Other times it's concrete, ice or watermelon.
The 44-year-old has a first-degree black belt in tae kwon do and has held the United States Breaking Association's women's record for the most boards -- 11 -- broken with an elbow since 2008.
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She also is tied for first place for the women's USBA record for breaking the most boards -- nine -- with a fist.
Foster-Mills took up martial arts five years ago almost on a whim and despite the fact that she suffers from a genetic degenerative neurological disease that likely will cause her to use a wheelchair someday.
"I ... was looking for a way to get some exercise, something that wasn't boring," she said.
She discovered there is nothing boring about how her instructor, Wes Lewallen, owner of Pacific Kicks in Kennewick, teaches tae kwon do. Foster-Mills also discovered she had an aptitude for breaking objects.
Lewallen said his students often show a preference for one part of the sport over another.
"Some do weapons, some forms, but breaking really sparked her," he said. "Which is unusual. Females don't usually take to breaking as much as guys."
And Foster-Mills, who is product line manager at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory in Richland, does it in spite of genetic degenerative neurological disease, called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, or CMT.
People with CMT slowly lose normal use of their lower legs and hands as nerves to the extremities degenerate and muscles become weakened due to a lack of stimulation, affecting their balance and strength. Six people in her immediate family have the disease.
Foster-Mills wears sturdy elastic braces on her feet.
"I'll eventually need sturdier, plastic braces, then a cane and finally a wheelchair," she said. "But not now. I do have problems with my balance, and I can't do high kicks, but I can still break boards and do most everything everyone else can do."
Breaking, Foster-Mills said, "requires power, technique, focus and confidence. Strength helps but it's really a combination of all those that allow you to break."
For her, taking up martial arts was about being courageous.
"You don't know what you can do until you try. If you fall down, you pick yourself up and keep going. That first day I thought, 'This won't work, my knees will be killing me.' But you'd be surprised what rubberized floor mats, anti-inflammatory drugs and braces will do," she said.
To achieve championship status, Foster-Mills competed in tournaments, which mainly are held in Ohio, Texas and on the East Coast. She earned points at each one for a first-place win.
"The more tournaments you attend, the more points you can earn," she said.
Points are totaled at the end of the year and the championships awarded.
It's fun, she says, but expensive. Her out of pocket expenses for each tournament run about $1,500.
Part of her expenses are the boards and cement blocks she breaks. The blocks are standard. But the 9-by-12-inch boards, 1/2 inch or 1 inch thick, have to be special ordered. To ensure all the boards being used at a tournament are equal, they have to come from the same lot.
Between buying materials, travel, entry fees and ongoing tae kwon do classes as she works on her second degree black belt, Foster-Mills said "it's not a cheap sport."
But she loves it.
Watch her face light up in glee as she breaks everything from boards to a watermelon in this video: http://bit.ly/g8Lqaa.