Monday, December 10, 2012

Kent Taikai 2012

Photo courtesy of J. O'Donnell
This weekend our dojo competed in the 16th Annual Kent Taikai.  We had quite a full group this time, too, with seventeen members heading over to compete in divisions all across the board.  My division was the 1-3 Dan, and it was by far the largest division with well over half of the competitors. 

After arriving at the taikai on Saturday morning and warming up, we got things under way.  Our division wasn't fighting until right before the team matches, so I had quite a few hours to wait.  I passed the time by helping out on the scoring table for one of the courts, catching up with some friends, and getting as much video of our guys in action as possible.  I was able to watch some great matches that my dojo mates took part in, as well as feel the energy building up for our division later in the day.

The time finally came, and I suited up and got ready for my matches.  I had a bye in the first round, and got to watch my first opponent in action.  I took some mental notes and prepared myself for our match in the second round.  That opponent happened to be Day, from Kent.  A sandan that was on our PNKF regional team that competed at nationals last year.  I remember saying that I wanted a challenging tournament, and I was not about to be disappointed!

The match started and about ten seconds in he scored the first point with a nice men strike as I backed up.  Honestly that threw some doubt into my head as to whether I could actually win that match, but I didn't let it get to me and continued on.  We reset and I came out, guns blazing, trying hard to get that point back.  After a few close calls (and waved off points in my favor) I finally tied the match with a men strike.  All tied up, we reset for the final point.  Neither of us made it easy on the other one, but I finally landed a kote as my opponent backed up to take the match.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)

Wow!  What a fight that was, and it was only the first one of the day for me.  But, as things go sometimes, that was not going to be the last of the tough matches for me.  My next opponent was a woman by the name of Kikkawa, who fought for UW.  She is also sandan, and won the Women's Dan division at PNKF this year.  I knew I was in for a fight.  We started out and circled each other slowly, trying to find an opening.  Once the pressure broke we exchanged attacks, flying at each other trying to land a good strike and take the first point.  There were close calls and waved off points for both of us, but after the three minutes were up neither of us had been able to score a point.  We went into the first round of overtime (encho), and again fought each other to a tie.  One more encho and we would go to a judge's decision, one which I felt I probably wouldn't win.  Unfortunately for me it didn't come to that.  Part way into the second encho she landed a clean hiki kote on me to take the point and the win.  So my time in the individuals division had come, but not without a good fight.  I gave all I had in that match and I walked out with no regrets.

Final Score: 1-0 (Kikkawa in encho)

I still had the team matches to prepare for, and what a time we had there!  Our team consisted of myself at chuken (middle spot), flanked by some of the best our dojo had to offer.  The first match we fought was against Portland, and they ran the first round a bit differently than normal.  They placed a rule in effect that said once a clear team winner was determined that the matches would stop right there.  That meant to us that we just needed to win the first three matches to take the win and move on.  Jordan and Andy went out and fought beautifully, taking their matches 2-0 each.  My turn came up and I was up against a brand new kyu from Portland in his first tournament.  I stepped onto the court determined to win and took the first point, a kote, after just a few seconds.  We reset and I was able to take the second, and winning, point with a men strike after parrying his kote.  The match ended right there and we were bumped into the next round.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 3-0 (Spokane A)

Our next opponent was Seattle, and they had some heavy hitters on their team and came out of the gates swinging.  By the time my match came Seattle was up with one win and a tie, and my opponent was a sandan named Guidi.  I had never fought him before but seen him at many taikai previously, so I knew that he had a lot of experience that I would have to try and overcome.  I stepped out onto the court and partway in scored the first point, a men strike.  We reset and after trading blows for a while longer I was able to score again with another men strike, taking the win for our team.  Seth and Billy rounded out the final two matches with a couple of wins, pushing us into the semi-finals.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 3-1 (Spokane A)

The semi-final round brought us up against the team from University of Washington, which also boasted some serious competition Jordan and Andy were both able to tie their matches, and I was looking to hopefully turn that around and grab a win if I was able, or to force a tie if I couldn't take the win.  My opponent was a guy named Cheng, a nidan from UW that I had fought a couple years ago.  He beat me back then, pretty easily, so I knew it was going to be tough.  He had good kendo and was very fast, and it showed once our match started.  We both did our best but couldn't land anything, until finally about halfway through the match Cheng connected with a do strike to take the first point.  I was in a bad spot now, but I focused and almost immediately took the point back with a kote strike of my own.  The match was tied now, and we were both looking for that final point.  Time ran out before either of us could get it, though, so the match was left up to Seth and Billy.  Seth pulled off a spectacular win against Kikkawa, the girl that had beat me in individuals, and Billy pulled off a win in his match to seal it for us.  We were heading to the finals!

Final Score: 1-1
Team Score: 2-0 (Spokane A)

 For the second year in a row we had made it to the team finals at Kent.  Only one more match and we could claim victory.  Our opponent in the finals was Sno-King.  They all did really well in teams and were a force to be reckoned with.  Jordan and Andy started off, tying both of their matches against some tough opponents.  My match was up, and I was pitted against Grimes, a sandan who had fought on our women's PNKF team at national last year.  I kind of felt a pattern, as over the past year or so I've fought almost all of the women's and men's team members, with varying results.  I had never faced her before, but I'd seen her in action many times and knew she was very, very good.  The match started and I immediately pressured in, trying to use my reach and distance to my advantage.  I was unable to connect with anything, but on the other hand neither was she.  We kept this up for a while and she finally caught me off-guard, faking to my kote before wheeling her shinai around to strike my men.  We reset and I fought desperately to get the point back, throwing out almost everything I had at her, until finally....time ran out.  I was unable to recover the point and she took the win, 1-0.  Seth and Billy fought hard but unfortunately it was not our day to take the victory.

Final Score: 1-0 (Grimes)
Team Score: 1-0 (Sno-King)

In the end we claimed second place in teams.  Not a bad finish at all, and everyone did an awesome job and fought well.  Overall our dojo members did really well, placing in many of the divisions that they had entered.  I, myself, walked away with some wins, some losses, more experience and some definitely ideas on what to improve and work on and strengthen in my own technique.  I have no regrets about how the matches went, and am grateful that I was able to fight against such strong opponents and gain some valuable insight and ideas to work on.  Today is our first practice after the taikai, and I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to the dojo!

Photo Courtesy of W. Sinclair

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Solid Foundation, Solid Building

After a short hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday, I'm back.  I also feel like my focus is returning to me.  For the last couple of weeks I've felt a bit off.  I don't think it was anything with my training or my technique, but still the feeling was there.  It very well could have all been in my head.  After this weekend and last night's practice I'm feeling the focus returning, though, and I'm feeling ready to tackle the Kent Taikai this weekend.

Our sensei and his wife had the pleasure of spending the weekend at a seminar with Nakata Sensei, hanshi hachidan from Tokyo, and brought back all kinds of valuable information and advice to share with our dojo.  As such, we started out class last night in a most peculiar, and good, way.  We began class without our bogo or shinai/bokken.  After bowing in Sensei began to share a bit about what they learned about kendo, showing us that everything was connected, like links in a chain, and how we were going to build upon that throughout the next few weeks as we begin our winter kata study.  We started out with seiza, which might sound odd or too basic for some people, but it was pointed out that everything in kendo is connected, and if there are problems with your seiza and the way you enter and exit it, then there will be problems later on with your footwork and with your fumikomi and with your kendo overall.  This definitely goes along with what I've always believed - that basics are the foundation of good kendo, but it went past even what I normally think of as "basics".  We then moved into how to do proper rei (bowing), entering and exiting sonkyo, and how to draw your sword when you step into sonkyo.  All super basic, but all things that are the way they are for a reason and build upon each other.  That's why we should be more mindful of the way that we carry ourselves and perform these seemingly small tasks.

Over the last few weeks I've been working to correct my kote.  Maybe "correct" is not the right word to use here.  Let's say "improve" my kote.  I have a pretty solid kote, for the most part, but there are things about it that I am not happy with and would like to change and improve upon.  Billy has been a big help in this area, as he's given me some good advice and suggestions and constructive criticism to push me in the direction that I want to go with it, but I know it's not going to be an overnight change.  Through the course of the few short years I've been training I've ingrained a certain way of hitting kote into my muscle memory, so to step back, undue that, and move forward with a new approach is very hard to do.  But I'm definitely up for the challenge because I know afterward I will end up with a better, more efficient, more ferocious strike. 

After our basics overview we did a very concise warm-up of kirikaeshi and men-uchi before breaking out the courts and doing shiai-geiko.  We've been doing this quite a bit over the past few weeks, and I've honestly felt pretty good for the most part.  I'm definitely not perfect at all, but I think I've done a good job of keeping my focus on the court and being more aggressive while fighting intelligently (although I can always do with more of both).  I've been trying to bring that feeling I had at PNKF into my normal jigeiko and training - that feeling of pressuring my opponents without letting up, for lack of a better explanation.  This, again, will be a long, difficult task to carry out.

Since we've been doing a lot of shiai-geiko lately, I've also had a chance to work on my own shinpan skills.  Yes, they are skills.  A kenshi is not automatically good at being a shinpan just because they have been training for a long time, and being a shinpan is a whole new world of focus and discipline and things to learn and work on.  When I'm judging the lower kyu matches it's not too terribly difficult to see when they score a good point or not, and when they do something that they shouldn't or not, but as we move up the ranks the competitors start moving faster and that's where things get more difficult.  I know this is a skill that I will just have to continue practicing to improve, so I'm not beating myself up over it...yet.  I'll continue to do my best and take any information and advice that is given to me, and I'll do my best to be the best shinpan I can.

We have one last practice before we head out this weekend to the Kent Taikai.  There's nothing new I can learn between now and then, as far as my technique goes, so this next practice I will just focus on what I know and work with that and keep my spirit high for myself and for my dojo mates.  It's definitely going to be an eventful weekend and I'm looking forward to it very much.