the karate girls

It’s tournament day! We kick it off with the girls posing with their chief instructor, Master Pinpin. She is a fifth degree black belt and wonderful mentor for young girls in the sport. Both Ava and Mia adore her. Their looks are tough; ready to go!

Today is Mia’s first competition, she’s only been practicing karate since August. Her instructor loves her chi; her energy force. She packs more chi into her tiny frame than most adults I know. She is one of the few white belts in the room and is signed up for two events, forms and sparring.

Forms is her first event. She sits down with the other kids, waiting for her judge. Mia is called first and as she steps forward, she bravely gives her speech, “My name is Mia. I am from the Foster City Dojo. My chief instructor is Master Pinpin. I will be performing eight point blocks with C-steps, and counter strikes. May I please begin.” The judge nods. She is impressive, albeit pint-sized, she shows her strikes, mobility, and coordinated footwork. She finishes, bows, and is excused.

After all the performances, there is a tie. She performs again and she places third. It is a great start to her day, she is beyond happy! She talks about Joey, her judge, the rest of the day.

Sparring is up next and she is all geared up. Her equipment includes a mouth guard. You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a mouth guard for such a tiny person. I end up cutting the guard with scissors, but not before I destroyed the first one the previous night by placing it in hot water. Everyone said, put it in hot water to get a good fit. I guess I went overboard with the hot water and ended up melting it instead. Literally, melted into a blob. Master Pin Pin brings me an extra one for Mia the next day. It looks like an oversized orange peel in her mouth.

It’s amazing how much gear one has to put on to spar. It’s even more amazing when you put it all on a forty pound body. It all looks HUGE. Boxing gloves. Head gear. Foot protection. Mouth guard. She’s ready to rumble or at the very least battle it out in West Side Story.

Little kid sparring is adorable. There is no other way to describe it. A lot of circling. A lot of missed punches and kicks. Lots of arms flailing in the air. They are just learning the ropes. Mia gets in a key left punch and then a right. A bonk on the head and she gets her three points. She makes the final round to spar for first/second place. She faces off with a yellow belt girl, taller than her. They battle it out for a good five minutes before her competitor is named the winner. Mia has no idea she has won a trophy and just stands there wondering what happened. The judge notifies her she won second place and a trophy. She squeals with delight, throwing off her gear in the process.

Mia raises her trophy in the air, triumphant. She takes a photo with the first place winner, they become fast friends. She finds her coach, Mr. Jason, and poses proudly for a photo with him as well. Two trophies and she is over the moon. Her chi fills the room.

Ava’s begins her day with sparring. In her event, the ranks range from purple to blue/green striped belt, ages ranging from 7-9. These girls can fight. After getting knocked out in the first round at the tournament last spring, Ava focused on sparring with girls in her class who were better than her. Focusing on her aggressiveness and confidence, she is a whole new fighter. I can hardly believe the girl on the mat is my sweet Ava.

She starts strong and is the running for first/second, but loses and ends up battling for third/fourth position. She lands a solid fair kick to her competitor’s chest that brings her sparring partner to tears. The judge stops the fight, so the other girl can recover. They sit Ava to the side, so she can’t see the other girl crying. They finish the fight and Ava still wins third place. She checks on the girl after the match and makes sure she is okay. They encourage sportsmanship throughout both the tournament and her classes. I know Ava has learned the value of this and it is what drives her to do better, learn from others, and to show humility when winning.

After lunch, the black belt demonstration begins. With the city rising up around us, sparkling skyscrapers touching the sky, we gather outside on the concrete deck to watch the black belts compete. Intricate routines telling a story, requiring deep strength, artistry, and focus. Physical sparring matches take place around the large half circle of spectators. We cheer for Ava’s coach who is competing. A weapons demonstration show us the power of the whip and of the Sansetsukon. Beauty and danger, all wrapped up in the one human body.

The girls meet the woman who placed first place in the black belt sparring event. Mia informs her that she got second place in her sparring event. Ava chats with her as well. She is what they can become if they continue to work hard.

It is turning late in the afternoon, we have been here all day and Mia is tired. She lays down, face first into the carpet. Time for a karate girl power nap.

It’s finally time for Ava’s weapons event. A large group of boys and two girls line up around the ring. A variety of weapons are on display.

That day, there were certainly kids better than her. Boys with more complicated weapons routines who really stood out; athletic and precise.

I exhale as Ava takes her place in front of the judge. Handing her sword over, he inspects it as she gives her speech. He gives her permission to begin. She steps to the back of the ring,  bows, and begins.

She brings something special to routine, something I noticed last time she competed, a clear elegance to her movements. She hits hard, swinging the sword over her head, stabbing the air with a satisfying swooping sound, a collision of metal slicing air. A sound only a snapping of the sword can produce while giving a strong Kiai! Smooth and glossy, she moves like a river.

Finishing her routine, she pulls her sword to her side, bows, and sits down. Graceful. Simple. Strong.

The judge pauses to tally the points. He places the trophies in the ring and begins the task of announcing the winners. And in fourth place…….”AVA BEY!” Ava beams, walks up, and stands behind her trophy. After not placing at all last spring, she is THRILLED.

I clap my hands, jump up and down, and cheer. Maybe I yell a little too loud, people are staring at me, but I don’t care.

Because you know that feeling when you are so proud, your heart almost bursts out of your chest? Ava placing in weapons was one of those moments. She had worked so hard. Loud momma on the sidelines, screaming her lungs out. That’s me.

I love this sport for so many reason for what it gives to girls. Confidence. Strength. Athleticism. Competitiveness. Sportsmanship. Friendship. To compete across gender and have the capability to win.

Both girls clutch their trophies close. Little gold men kicking high on top of a sparkly red towers. The event, rank, and year listed on a little gold plate at the base. Mia thinks 2015 means she earned a lot of points.

Each trophy is lovingly placed on the bedroom dresser; easy to see and admire. I’m actually surprised, they didn’t sleep with their trophies.

My only wish is that they would provide gold women on top of the trophies. There were plenty of girls competing in both girl only sparring events as well as the mixed gender events of forms and weapons. Toe to toe, the girls share the same deep competitiveness to win with the boys. So, why no gold woman trophies?

Is the message are we sending to the girls of this sport that when they win, it’s not important enough to give them a trophy that represents who they are. I know it’s not meant to be intentionally gender biased. I think it’s probably just easier in a big tournament to have one gender trophies. But how would people feel if they handed out only girl trophy toppers instead of male ones? What would happen?

As for today, my girls don’t care if it’s a man gracing the tops of their trophies. They only see the accomplishment of what they achieved.

So, maybe it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a detail. The work has been recognized and isn’t that enough?

But maybe someday, they’ll notice.

Maybe someday, they’ll ask, “Why isn’t there a woman kicking her way across the top of my trophy?”

What if next time, there was.

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