The jeers from the crowd were loud. My foe positioned himself across from me, calm and prepared. He was barely taller than me yet his poise made him look 10 feet tall.
A look of steel shimmered in his eyes. He felt as though he’d won a fight that hadn’t yet begun.
He was ready.
“Fight!” the center judge called out.
I sized up my opponent, perhaps too late. Before I even had a chance to start a strike, his fist crashed into the side of my head. I tried to regain my focus, but it was almost impossible. The call was one point for the other fighter.
The movement back to center was too fast. Bang! He stormed in on me again, striking the head with another powerful technique. The lights began to brighten. The score was 2-0.
Once more, an attack. This time I evaded. I finally started a kicking motion, but he crashed into me with a stunning combination.
Within seconds, we began again. And again. And again.
The repetitiveness of the blows was disturbing. Sometimes they came after the stoppage point. Fair? Yes. This was Chicago karate, subtle things like that wouldn’t make a difference.
It was over after a minute. I found it hard to breathe.
I hadn’t prepared right, and it showed throughout the match. I had been eliminated in round one. A million questions exploded in my mind, but only one statement truly mattered.
I had lost, and there was no going back.
A NEW BEGINNING
It was a long drive to Minneapolis. My whole family was proud of me for even participating in the American Karate Association Grand Nationals, but I had disappointed myself. It wasn’t just a fight, either. I had competed in a multitude of martial arts events, coming up way short in each one.
Between the two versions of karate—sparring (fighting) and form (a solo demonstration of martial arts)—I had the intangibles to do well in both. The perfect size, quick hands, a three-foot vertical, and best of all, extreme flexibility that complemented it all.
As it turns out, physical ability is one thing. Mental ability is another stratosphere.
Just before Grand Nationals, my instructor asked Nick Nguyen to train with me. Nguyen was a former national competitor, one of the top form competitors of his time. He agreed to work with me in private lessons.
Even though I spent an hour with him on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a strong work ethic remained absent. At 11 years old, the thought of grueling training wasn’t attractive. And when my instructor signed on Minnesota resident Mychal Hasse—one of the best to compete on the North American Sport Karate Association circuit—to be my second coach, it became even less so.
All of these champions worked hard in order to achieve their success. Sundays with Hasse required me to equal that. The first training session we had, he asked me to do as many push-ups as I could.
I did 70 or so, maxing out. I got up and looked at him.
“I think you could have cranked out ten more.” Hasse said.
There was a momentary pause. “And those aren’t push-ups.”
Instead, he forced me to do military-style push-ups, a variation that required more strength. Ten-a-day was my assignment.
For two hours every week, we would work out with plyometrics for lower body strength, kicking workouts and hand combos. I got creamed in the sessions. Every week. When I would go home, I did my ten-a-day push-ups, maybe twice a week.
The work ethic still wasn’t there. So, of course, neither were results.
Eventually, Hasse and Nguyen had the idea to include a new type of form called creative or open. This means you can do flips, jumps, spins and just about anything you want.
The Twin Cities Open was my first tournament with Nguyen and Hasse at the helm. Anticipation mounted. The start of a brand new year can be promising—and for me, this meant introducing my new form. My coaches dubbed it Flight.
In the weeks leading up to the Twin Cities Open, I was cool and collected. Any genuine worries escaped me. Though I still had the occasional flashback to Chicago, the difference now was confidence.
During my Open performance, I displayed intensity, technique, power and speed. Raw talent utilized in a brilliant manner. It was as good as a mediocre worker like me could expect.
One by one, the judges revealed the results. I remember the feeling of excitement as I took the highest scores, then the sheer joy of placing second in the end. I landed another second for my next form, and unfortunately, second to last in creative forms.
Flight may have crashed, but my end placement changed me. I saw what I had done, and it wasn’t a fluke.
I walked into my karate school to meet with Hasse the following Sunday.
“Now what’s next, Minnesota State?” he said.
The Minnesota State Championship, a tournament I had won when I was not yet a black belt.
Winning as a black belt? Extremely difficult.
Except my second place finish had given me hope. I started doing the ten push-ups, almost every day. I began acting out my form and sparring much less. My interest had shifted to something I had never done in five years of karate.
Creative form was the strangest thing. It was so close to what I had done previous, but it cross-wired my brain.
I couldn’t have Coca-Cola or any other soda. Fast food became limited. A training regimen was in place. Harder work, faster work, a bigger picture mindset.
I would stay in the splits for long periods of time. Jumping from left to right continuously increased my leg strength, making stances and technique easier. I would practice punching, kicking and new moves that were awkward to even try. School had almost become my second priority.
The training was getting better, my mindset stronger. I arrived at Minnesota State more prepared than ever.
Though both coaches deemed Flight unfit for competition, I prepared like normal, trying to get the look of steel in my eyes that I saw in my Chicago opponent almost a year prior.
I started the form. The beginning was decent, as was the middle. A second place performance—until, as I executed a basic move, my weapon (a sleek wooden stick) slipped from my hands.
A small bobble, hardly noticeable to most. But it cost me. I finished fourth, and it hurt to lose more than ever.
Minnesota State ended roughly. Two more tournaments followed, and I placed in the top three in all ensuing events. Over the next several months, discouraging local results seemed more like consequences. A national tournament went well, but the end result was merely respectable.
TURNING IT ON
It only fueled the intensity of my training.
Two hundred push-ups a day, two hundred sit-ups and months of workouts with Nguyen and Hasse. My conditioning hit an all-time high.
All eyes were on the Grand Nationals in Chicago again. I had come a long way from where I was the last time.
Having placed 15th the year before, I was back on the Windy City stage. Back to win.
Adrenaline filled my veins. Step forward, strike, step back, strike, strike, strike. That day, I was hitting harder than ever. I even surprised myself.
Fifth place. Fifth in the nation. I jumped ten spots in one year.
I had redeemed myself, slayed my Chicago demons. More than a year of work had paid off.
Minnesota State became the top priority. More training. More confidence.
I wasn’t nearly as nervous upon arrival as I used to be. All of the people watching didn’t intimidate me anymore.
I was prepared to win. I was a veteran now. This is my home turf, I thought.
Boom. I won first. Boom. Another first.
Then came Flight. It went perfectly. I took second for the first time.
All of this meant I was heading to the Grand Championship round, which mixes the first place winner from each ring together.
I went into the restroom to change out of my sparring gear. I looked in the mirror. Tears pricked my eyes.
This was it, my biggest chance.
Nguyen stood ringside as I began my form. All of the training, all of the hard work rolled into one centerpiece performance. I was set to compete against every age under 17. It’s a combination of the most virtuoso performances from every corner of the room.
I yelled louder than ever, my stances deeper than I thought possible. I wouldn’t let go of my weapon this time. My legs tired quickly during the form, but I refused to give in. I had put in hours of work to get to this point.
The judges revealed my scores—several 9.97s, multiple 9.99s.
It was officially announced over the loudspeakers. My name and Minnesota State Champion in the same sentence.
Time moved in slow motion for the next 20 minutes.
I went from an optional ten push-ups per day to a mandatory 200.
I went from 15th to 5th.
From worst to first.
Tssk. I opened a can of Coca-Cola.
After all I had done, and with a smile I couldn’t wipe off my face, it never tasted so good.