Dying karate teacher won't give up on his students

Peter Clifton-Sprigg
Peter Clifton-Sprigg

A west Auckland man who may have just weeks to live is inspiring karate students with his inspirational approach to dying.

Peter Clifton-Sprigg was diagnosed with throat cancer last year, and it's now spread to his spine. The only things holding him together are the fractures in his broken back.

The pain is overwhelming, but still he pushes through it for his west Auckland students, who he's been teaching right up until this week.

"Look not to put too fine a point on it I'm going to die very soon, I can feel the cancer growing inside me, I can feel the cancer day by day. I have got a point to prove and I want this to be an inspiration for others," says Mr Clifton-Sprigg.

Treatment is now considered a lost cause, but continuing to train his students isn't.

"I love to inspire - it's what I call the Geronimo moment when the penny drops and people get it and then they go on to excel, I feel I've been able to give some people a leg up and they've skyrocketed."

Even Mr Clifton-Sprigg continues to strive to learn himself, just last week he went through grading and is now focused on his black belt.

And while his body is starting to let him down, his mind isn't.

"Karate has given me step by step this encouragement, this inspiration to push through and succeed when all the odds are against you. Your body is screaming, your mind is screaming - that I think is the most important."

Those who are charged with overseeing his teaching say even they are blown away by his mental fortitude.

Regional 19 Manager Hayden Gwynne says: "You see him standing there at the end of the Dojo after a hard warm up and he's bent over and can hardly breathe and the kids are standing beside him saying 'how did you beat us?' That alone is the biggest influence you can have over people. It's not what you say it's what you do."

The award-winning garden designer who's exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show eight times fled Uganda ten years ago with wife Anne.

As missionaries they built a village, owned a restaurant, a plant nursery, and changed the lives of many with vocational training.

Corruption was rife and they received death threats.

They scrambled to get the last four seats out of the country on a British Airways plane, escaping with their two adopted Ugandan babies Katie and Melissa.

While at the departure gate about to board the plane to safety, they received word their home had been destroyed.  

Mr Clifton-Sprigg remembers: "I had a massive nervous breakdown. We had a place there for life and to leave absolutely everything and to come out with our lives - at that point I could not process that in my head."

After a brief stint back in the UK, the family moved here in 2008.

Mr Clifton-Sprigg found strength in karate which he took up to spend time with his daughters and when cancer struck, he says giving up was not an option. 

"I want people to say 'if he can do it with this, I can do it with a pimple on my nose or if my left toe is broken- these are just excuses.' There's always a way through but you get a stronger mind and this gives you the ability to help others in a more constructive, more active way."  

Mr Clifton-Sprigg has just finished building his own coffin, with the help of his adoring wife Anne.

"It's me taking charge of the cancer, not allowing it to take control of me and it was a wonderful experience."

She admits it was a "confronting" experience for her, but being able to tinker with the silk lining and help put the finishing touches to the coffin was cathartic.

Peter Clifton-Sprigg will be buried in his prized white karate suit and is candid about what the weeks ahead hold.

"When your number is up I guess it's up, so I'm not scared."

Anne chips in as she caresses his hand, "but your legacy will live on" she says.

And looking around his class, you get the feeling truer words were never spoken.