When statuesque teen Melissa Clifton-Sprigg steps onto the mat at the Karate World Cup later this year, the words of her late father will be ringing in her ears. Peter Clifton-Sprigg, a karate instructor, chef, teacher and pastor, encouraged Melissa, his five other children and his 31 foster children to be the best version of themselves they could be.
“If Dad was still with me, he’d say, ‘Get out there and do your very best,’” says 15-year-old Melissa, who was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in Uganda. For the Auckland father-daughter duo, training in Go Kan Ryu karate was a mutual passion and heading to the World Cup to represent Auckland later this year had been a shared dream.
“Dad was excited for me to go to the Worlds and for a long time, he thought he’d hang on long enough to make it,” says Melissa. But Peter was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 and within three months, it had spread to his spine and he was told it was terminal.
Despite staring death in the face, Peter chose to spend his last few months living instead of dying. He skydived to raise money for hospice, continued to teach karate until a fortnight before his death and, despite being gravely ill, realised his long-held dream of attaining his black belt.
“By then, Peter had four fractured vertebrae and was on crutches,” recalls his wife of 40 years, Anne, 57. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
In October last year, Peter, an award-winning garden designer who exhibited eight times at the Chelsea Flower Show, passed away. He was 61. For Melissa, his death meant the searing loss of not just a father, but also of a mentor and training partner.
“It was hard going back to karate, but I only had two options – keep going or give up. I knew Dad’s death would make me or break me.”
English couple Anne and Peter married when Anne was only 16, and went on to have four children, Naomi, now 40, Hannah, 38, Becky, 36, and Graham, 34. As well as bringing up their own family, the big-hearted pair opened their home to 31 foster kids. Some stayed for just a week, but most lived with them for years.
“We told our biological children they were lucky to have a loving home and many kids didn’t know what that was like, so we had to show them,” explains Anne, a preschool teacher.
By 2000, the couple’s biological children were independent, so they headed to Mbale in Uganda to work as missionaries. Anne was struck by the plight of the estimated one million orphans, many left behind by the ravages of civil unrest and AIDS, and said to Peter one day, “There is so much need. Do you think we should do something?”
Keen to adopt, the couple went to the Sanyu Babies’ Home and met Melissa, who was malnourished and suffering from malaria and dysentery. “She was eight months old, but the size of a four-month-old,” says Anne.
“Melissa was so critically ill that when she was handed to us, we thought we were taking her home to die.”
A year later, the couple adopted toddler Katie, who’s now 15. “She linked her arms around my neck and looked at me with big brown eyes,” recalls Anne.
She and Peter spent six years raising their girls, building a village, opening a restaurant and teaching vocational training in Uganda. But in 2006, an American friend was murdered and the couple began to receive death threats.
“We fled one morning to take the last four seats on a British Airways flight,” says Anne. “At the airport, we got a call to say our house had been attacked.”
After two years in the UK, the couple brought Katie and Melissa to New Zealand, where their oldest daughter Naomi was living in Auckland.
“New Zealand suited the girls better than the UK did,” tells Anne. “They ran around in bare feet and really took to the laid-back lifestyle.”
It was Katie who first discovered karate, although she no longer trains. Peter signed up next and then Melissa. Moving through the ranks, Peter began to teach in Auckland’s Ranui.
“Dad loved being fit, but the thing he liked best about karate was teaching,” says Melissa. “He had a lot of respect for people and wanted to know their stories.”
Anne adds, “Peter saw the potential in people, even when they couldn’t see it in themselves.”
With the World Cup on the Gold Coast in August, Melissa’s training hard and dreams of one day following in her father’s footsteps by attaining her black belt.
“Dad really encouraged me to get out there and do it for myself.”
Anne will travel with Melissa to the World Cup and knows Peter will watch over them. She says his death has left a hole in many people’s lives, but his legacy lives on in his kids.
“He was an amazing man and a brilliant father to all 37 of his children,” tells Anne.