Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Steveston Taikai 2015 - No Expectations

Photo courtesy and property of T. Patana

This past weekend I finally, after many years, was able to travel to and compete at the Steveston Taikai, in British Columbia, Canada.  This was the 53rd year for this event, and I was glad that the stars finally aligned and I was able to make the journey.  It was a long one from Spokane up to Vancouver, but it was well worth it.  I had a great weekend filled with friends, adventures, road-tripping in our van, and lots of action at the taikai! I went to the taikai with no expectations of how I would do, or even who I would face.  Since it was the first time I was there all I wanted to do was exhibit good kendo in all of my matches, whether that ended up being one match or ten.  I think I accomplished that...

We arrived at the site early Saturday morning, and the first thing I noticed was how big the venue was.  There was the main gym, with four courts, and two auxiliary gyms.  One was being used for housing equipment and bags, and for warming up ,and one was used as an extra courts.  I also noticed that the courts seemed smaller than what I was used to, so I would definitely have to be mindful of my surroundings a bit more.  It was also the first time that I fought at such a big event.  They had us do the walk-in while they called our dojo names.  Felt like a big deal to me, even though I'm sure that's how they always do things.  But that upped my desire to show good kendo even more.  Even though my division was one of the first ones to compete, I had quite the wait as I had a bye to the second round and ended up having to wait through 20+ other matches before mine came up.  I did get a chance to check out my opponent in action before I had to fight him, though, which proved invaluable.  As the second round started and my match approached, I suited up and began focusing myself for my first round of action.

My first match was against Horii, from SCKF.  From what I know of California, their kendo is strong and fast, so I had a tough match from the beginning.  We stepped in and started, and at once I saw that speed coming down on me.  He went for my kote and men a lot, I did my best to counter, but he was always quick getting in and out, or with throwing up a block of his own.  Instead of trying to match his speed, I worked more on distancing.  I was a bit taller and used that to my advantage, moving in and out of my hitting distance, trying to control when and where he would hit with my own movements and seme.  Neither of us had scored, although we both had close calls.  I finally took the first point when I pressured in and nailed his kote as he lifted up for my men.  My advantage didn't last long, though, as he quickly came back with a men fake to open my kote.  We were at a standstill of 1-1 at the end of the match, so encho would be used to decide the winner.  We restarted, and I realized that they only do one encho round there, instead of the two rounds I was used to, although I do think it was longer (maybe two minutes?).  We both fought hard for the point that would decide the match, and both of us had more close calls.  I tried to keep my cool and kept trying to control the distancing and the pace of the match.  I think it must have worked.  Neither of us were able to score another point so we went to hantei (judges' decision).  One flag was raised for Horii, but two for me. I had won the first match.

Final Score: 1-1 (Ruiz by Hantei)

At this point in the taikai, I was happy with how I'd done.  I had done my best kendo in that first match, and I hit a great kote that sent the flags flying.  I could have lost that match and still have been happy with how I'd done.  But I ended up winning and moving on!  My next match was against Holzner, from Tozenji.  Little side note about him; they had marked him as being from our dojo (Spokane) on the division bracket. Funny that he ended up facing me, who is actually from Spokane.  The match started and we both stepped in, ready to go.  The one thing that sticks out in my mind about him was his men strike.  It was SO fast!  I was barely able to see it coming and many times I was taken by surprise at how quickly he moved in for it.  I thought for sure he would get it, but I put those thoughts at bay and concentrated on once again taking control of the match.  I was able to again use my distancing and timing to get a hold on things, and I was able to keep his attacks from scoring, while also delivering attacks and counters of my own.  Nothing that either of us was doing was landing, though, until partway through the match when I landed a de-kote as he came for my men.  I took the lead and was able to hold it until the very end.  I had advanced through another round!

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)

I'd reached the quarter finals in my first shot at Steveston!  And I was feeling pretty good, as my first two opponents were young, fast guys.  I couldn't match their speed, but I used other assets to my advantage, and I hoped to keep this up in the next round.  My opponent this time would be Yao, from Steveston.  I've seen him many times before so I was familiar with his name and his style, but I still knew it would be a hard fight.  The match started and I found him quick and solid, but I did my best to fight back, going for openings when I saw them and countering when I could.  At one point I remember I nearly got his men when I came around his kensen and up.  The block came just in time, but at least I knew I was focused enough to possibly get a point.  Unfortunately that didn't happen for either of us and we headed into encho.  We restarted and upped our intensity, both of us fighting for that point and the win.  I attempted to push him out of bounds at one point, I think it was the only time I did in that whole taikai.  I came barreling in with kote and when I noticed it didn't land I crashed into him and sent him back a few feet.  Not enough, though, as he was still inside the court, but it gave him a moment to pause and look back to check his position.  We both fought hard, but in the end I was able to land another de-kote to take the point and the win.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz in encho)

At this point I was completely blown away.  I had far exceeded anything I'd hoped to do at this taikai, so the rest was just icing on the cake, so to speak.  I found myself in the semi-finals, and my opponent was a guy that I was actually hoping to fight the whole time.  He was one of two nito players that were in our division.  Stelck, from Edmonton.  We bowed, stepped in and started the match.  We have a few nito players at our dojo, so I was really excited to fight this one and see how I would do.  I'd previously fought a nito player from Portland and tied him 1-1 in teams, but this one wasn't going to end at a simple tie.  He had a solid kamae and was able to deflect much of everything I did, but I stuck to what I knew and what I'd been taught and pressed him, attacked when I had a chance or an opening, and tried to keep the pressure on.  Unfortunately he was able to take the first point on me with a strike to my men.  We reset, and at this point I knew I had nothing to lose.  I needed to press the attack and be aggressive or else I would lose.  When I started again, I came at him more ferociously.  I threw attacks at him, crashed in, used my footwork and speed to my advantage and worked hard to get that point back.  Unfortunately my end came when I stepped in from seigan kamae and struck for men.  He went for men, too, but as I was coming in from the side it gave him a perfect line right down the center to hit me.  He took the point, and the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Stelck)

I had a good run, and was definitely not hurt by the loss.  In fact, I went and talked to Stelck after our match and got some good advice on what he noticed I did wrong there.  He did say that I definitely looked like I knew what I was doing, having fought against nito before, but that my distance was too close.  Now I have more to work on and more to help me improve.  I got a chance afterward to enjoy some great matches in the women's 2 Dan+ and men's 4+ plus, coming to a great final with Ara Sensei from Renbu beating out Ariga Sensei from E-Bogu/SCKO.  Teams began immediately after, and my dojo mates and I got ready for our first match.

We began the team division against SFU in the first round, a Canadian team with many strong players.  I was jiho this time around, as we tried using a different line-up than we normally do, and my opponent was Hsu, who fought in jodan.  I've fought jodan once before at taikai, plus the practice that I get at our own dojo, so I had a good idea of what to expect and what to do, but I found her jodan to be more of the presure-pressure-pressure-strike that I see as a kind of traditional approach.  It was very effective, too, as she had a great grasp of distance and timing.  This got me into trouble, as she merely had to pull her hands back many times for me to miss her kote completely.  She took the first point partway through the match, when I stepped in and went for her right kote.  Thinking I had it, I let my guard down for just a second, but that's all it took for her to strike my men.  We reset and after baiting me with that left kote again, she reared back for a nuki men that found its mark and gave her the match.  The rest of the matches were very close, going back and forth for our teams, and we ended up in a tie and sent DeNardi out for a sudden death match.  Fortunately for us, he pulled through for our team after a wicked double men strike a few minutes in.  We were onto the second round.

Final Score: 2-0 (Hsu)
Team Score: 3-2 (Spokane in Sudden Death)

Our next opponents were from closer to home - Portland.  They had fielded a great team, and again our matches were back and forth.  I faced Holtorf in my match.  I've fought him before, a couple years ago, and lost to him 1-0 then, so I was looking to keep my team alive and possibly pull out a win.  We began and I pressured in, moving and using my shinai to try and find an opening or create one.  He had a solid kamae and would try and punish me each time I charged in before taking the center, and he was very quick with his own strikes and counters.  We fought for nearly the entire match, neither of us landing anything but taking a lot of close calls each.  I was finally able to land a de-kote as he rushed at me after a missed hiki men.  This gave me a one-point lead, which I was able to keep until time ran out only seconds later.  I was happy to take the match and help my team out, and in the end we ended up in another tie.  This time we sent out Sandberg to represent our team in daihyo-sen.  Portland send out Lee, and their match proved to be not only very long, but very exciting.  Shinais flew, hits, misses and a few hansoku were handed out, but in the end Lee was able to score a solid kote to take the win for their team.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 3-2 (Portland in Sudden Death) 

We were out in the second round of teams, but we were definitely able to hold our heads high as all of us fought really well and I'm sure were able to turn a  few heads.  Personally I far exceeded what I thought I could accomplish at that taikai, and I was able to get some good feedback on the matches that I lost so that I may continue to improve my own technique.  I witnessed some amazing matches and found a lot to work towards in my future training.  Until next time, Steveston!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Welcome Back!

I've said it before, but I'd like to say it again - I'm extremely happy to see Ando Sensei back at our dojo!  We got the news that he would be returning to our city for work, but we weren't sure if he'd have the time to come and train with us.  Turns out he does, and he seems to be back in full force!  We were lucky to have him not only for all of our regular practices last week, but also for our Friday night team training (name pending!).  He brought so much to our dojo last time he was here, just over two years ago, and it will be good to have his experience and leadership again. 

These last few weeks for me have been about tightening everything up.  Getting out the screwdriver and making sure all of the nuts and bolts are secured properly, so to speak.  I've been putting a lot of feeling, for lack of better word, into my kata lately, treating each go at it with my partners as if we were at the shinsa and had a panel of judges and spectators watching us.  This has forced me to try and be picture perfect with my moves, or as perfect as I can be at this stage.  Perfection, to me, is relative, and I believe there are multiple levels of perfection you can achieve, in whatever it is that you do.  But that's a subject that could fill a whole other blog, multiple times over.  Being so focused has also brought out some things that I really need to fix, and things that I can definitely continue through without issue.  One thing I want to try and fix before the shinsa is, when I'm uchidachi, to keep my eyes on shidachi.  One spot in particular that it comes into play, and this might be the only spot so I'm not TOO worried about it, is in kata 4, as I step in to tsuki shidachi I sometimes keep my eyes straight ahead instead of following shidachi as they sidestep and counter.  As Ando Sensei pointed out, this changes the target that shidachi strikes.  Instead of striking me dead-center, they strike the side of my head and it looks bad.  So that is one little thing I feel I can fix in the next few weeks.  Other issues that I have, while they feel glaring and obvious to me, aren't noticeable most of the time unless I draw attention to them.  I just need to be confident and perform the kata that I know, that I've done hundreds of times, and have that confidence show through in every movement I make. 

Training has been awesome lately!  It's always so amazing to me the amount of spirit that our dojo is able to produce during training.  It doesn't seem to matter if it's a big class or a small class, or if we have a lot of yudansha and longstanding members or if the majority are newer members, we have an ability to raise the level of spirit and intensity to new levels almost each and every time.  This is so great, especially when I'm physically sore or tired or losing speed.  I get that boost from my dojo mates, and am able to give it back and it actually helps me to be better, stronger, faster.  It's a great feeling and I'm always so glad when we can share that amongst ourselves and with visitors. 

I haven't been focusing on any one thing in particular lately, unless you count my focus on being confident.  Like with my kata, I have started to develop a confidence in my technique during drills and jigeiko that is shining through in everything I do.  I've also tried to be more mindful of the movements I make and the strikes that I do.  This is something I've been working on for a while now, too, and have mentioned in previous posts.  I definitely get hit more during practice, but one of my sempai made the observation this weekend that I'm "fighting smarter" lately.  It's also helped a lot with getting rid of my leaning body and the tells that I have before I strike.  Although not entirely gone, I have reduced them, in some cases dramatically, and I'm feeling pretty good about that.  One thing that Ando Sensei has given me to work on lately is to watch out how high I let my left hand rise up after I strike.  I have a bad habit of letting it fly back after I strike.  Instead, he said I should keep it down, about head or upper chest heigh, and drive through that way.  I remember him mentioning this to me before he left, too, wording it in a way that if I should keep my hand down low, as if I were going to punch my partner in the face with my fist if they didn't move.  I'll be working to correct this, as well.

All in all, training has been really good here, and it's been even better with the return of one of our members.  I hope that we are all able to take advantage and raise up all of our kendo during this time with Ando Sensei.