Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Rose City Taikai 2014: The Road to The Top



 It's that time of year again!  Time for the Rose City Taikai, hosted by the Obukan Kendo Club in Portland, Oregon.  Our dojo took some very excited members down this year and participated in the kendo fun this past weekend.  As I've mentioned before, this is always a special trip for me.  It was the first taikai I'd ever participated in, so I always use it as a watermark to see how far I've come since the last year.  It's also a great extended trip with my friends and dojo mates.

This year we were only able to take five competitors, due to work or school or personal schedule conflicts, but I believe that the five of us showed strong kendo all weekend.  We started the trip early on Friday morning, departing from our home here in Spokane and made a ton of new memories in the AC-deficient kendo van (yes, the AC was out in the van, but that didn't kill our spirit!).  We made the long drive down to Portland and arrived in time for training with our friends at Obukan Kendo Club.  The night was filled with good fellowship and good kendo, and I was able to practice with many new and old faces.  After practice, I was feeling good and confident for the next day of competition.  We headed out for a nice dinner and relaxing at the hotel before turning in for the night.

The next morning we packed up and headed to the taikai grounds, which were at the same venue  as last year.  I knew the competition that day would be good as there was a good turnout in our division, and also all but one of my dojo mates would be in the same division with me.  Competition would be high and fierce!  We were able to see some fantastic kendo to get us motivated, as they started the day with the Senior Dan and 3+ Dan divisions.  After a quick lunch, our 1-2 Dan division was up.

I was originally slated to fight in the fifth match in our division, but they decided to split our division onto both courts, so my match became the first match.  My opponent was Stroud Sensei's son.  What a way to start!  He had taken second place in our division last year and I'd seen him fight a few times and knew that he had very good, very straight kendo.  We had been laughing and joking before the matches, but I knew that when the match started we would put our best foots forward in hopes of coming out the victor.  I stepped in, we bowed, and our match got under way.  I took my time to begin with, feeling him out and trying to discover any weaknesses or any openings I could use to my advantage.  We traded blows for a bit, with me running into him at full speed at one point and bumping him a little more than I wanted.  I found my first point when we both moved in for kote-men.  We nullified each other's attacks, but I turned and pressed in with another men that found its mark.  We reset and I did my best to keep my point advantage while also looking for another opening and keep him at bay.  The next point came near the end of the match, when he came charging in for kote-men, I slid my kote in just a split second sooner.  Tough match to start the day with, and I'm glad I had to a chance to face him

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next match was with my friend S. Stern, from Ren Ma Dojo in Portland.   We had been joking about fighting each other the night before at practice, so when I saw the line-up I had to laugh a bit.  He had a distinct height and reach advantage on me, but I was going to do my best to even the field with strong kendo and good movement.  We stepped in and began the match.  Again, I took a reserved approach to the match, trying to take my time and see what was open and what wasn't, and how he reacted to my movement and pressure.  He did a good job of keeping me out at his hitting distance, but with about a minute left in the match I was able to connect with a debana kote for the first point.  We reset and I rushed him off the line, throwing my shinai back for a katsugi men that connected when he went for my kote, which was now gone from its original spot. 

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

Semi-finals, and my next opponent was T. Imanishi, from Cascade.  It's funny, she actually fought on a team with me the first time I came to Obukan, and now here we were facing each other as opponents.  I knew that she would be a tough match, but I also knew that the finals were within my reach.  We stepped in and started the match.  As a reverse of the last match, I was now the one with the height and reach advantage, but I knew she had very good footwork and movement and could move into her hitting distance quicker than I might be ready for.  I kept this in mind as I stepped in and pressured her.  We traded blows here and there, and more than once I noticed that her kote strike came dangerously close to scoring on me.  I tried to move in and out as much as possible, keeping her on her toes and wondering about what I might do next.  I kicked myself mentally at one point, though, when I had a solid strike to her kote that got the shinpans' flags moving, but then kept it going into a men strike that disqualified my previous strike.  We fought hard for the three minutes of the match, but neither of us were able to take a point, so we reset and readied ourselves for overtime.  When the match began anew, we both stepped in and laid on the pressure, both physically and mentally.  it seemed like forever before I started to press in and launched a kote.  It landed just as she began to swing up to hit my men.  The flags went up and I found myself in the finals.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

I'd made it.  I would be in the final match.  My opponent was still being decided on the other court, and I laughed to myself when I saw it was two of my own dojo mates fighting for a spot.  After a couple of minutes it was decided - Yarrow would be my opponent in the finals.  He is young, he is fast, he has a super long reach and his technique is outstanding.  What more could I ask for in a final opponent?  He took his rest time to re-focus, and after a bit we stepped in, bowed, and started the match.   The electricity between us was almost palpable.  Neither of us wanted to make a mistake in this match, and we both knew that the other had the ability to end things very quickly if we weren't careful.  Yarrow would attack, I would counter, and vice versa, but neither of us were able to connect anything at first.  The break came when Yarrow went for kote, which I answered with a kaeshi-men for the first point.  We reset and fought for a while more.  I thought I would be able to take the win with that point, but Yarrow came raging back with a kote-men that gave him a point and tied the match.  Even after a crazy flurry of strikes, neither of us were able to gain the upper hand again, and we were forced into overtime.  The suspense was now hanging heavy, and as the match restarted, we both increased our intensity and will to win.  I tried to keep a calm demeanor and kamae, not letting myself get taken out and creating an opening.  After a short kote-kote-men from Yarrow, we stepped back in and I pressured in with everything I had.  I watched and finally saw my opportunity, when he flinched as I pressed forward.  I threw out a kote that landed just as he began to lift his hands to hit my men.  The flags went up;  I had just won the 1-2 Dan division.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz in encho)

There wasn't much time for me to celebrate, as we had our team matches immediately after our division.  We suited up and headed out for battle once again, with our first matches against Portland's B team.  My match wasn't too spectacular, as it ended in a tie.  I was unable to get my opponent to open himself up or even attack me much, and I was unable to find a way through his blocking, so I did my best with him but was ultimately unable to land anything.  The rest of my team fared better, winning their matches and sending us into the next round.

Final Score: 0-0
Team Score: 4-0 (Spokane)

 Our next match was against our good friends from Kent.  They always have a strong showing, and we've gone back and forth on wins and losses for as long as I've been part of Spokane Kendo.  Today was going to be no different.  I started things off strong for our team, taking a two-point win against my opponent very quickly.  Yarrow kept our team alive by negating arguably their best member and forcing a tie.  Unfortunately we weren't able to hold onto that lead and ended up in a tie at the end of the team matches.  My team sent me out, and my opponent was S. Day, whom I had fought before.  This was a one-point sudden death match, so the first person to score would win it for their team.  We started strong, trading blows and playing pretty conservatively.  Things heated up quickly, though, and at one point I saw an opening for hiki doh and went for it.  I felt and heard it connect but as I launched backwards he followed me and landed a men strike that they called to end the match.  Lesson learned on my part.  I felt a bit of sorrow and unease for losing the match for my team, but that's how things go sometimes.  You win, you lose, as long as you learn and use it to improve, and I'll definitely be improving from that experience.

Final Score: 2-0
Team Score 2-1 (Kent) 

So this year we weren't able to claim a team victory, but all of our members had a strong showing. A couple of our members were fresh back on the court from pretty lengthy hiatuses, but they looked so comfortable and so in control that it was motivational to the rest of us.  I'm glad to be part of such a strong group, and I feel that the kendo we showed this past weekend will continue to solidify Spokane as a dojo that strives to push the bar for PNKF.



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