Thursday, April 16, 2015

UW Taikai 2015 - New Division?!

Photo courtesy of T. Patana
Last weekend my dojo and I participated in the 39th Annual UW Taikai, hosted by our friends at (where else?) the UW Kendo Club.  The weekend started off great, with a great practice at the Bellevue Dojo the night before, and with me getting some great practice and advice from my friends and sensei over on the coast.  One thing I need to remember is to be a better actor, courtesy of Goh Sensei!  Since I recently bumped up a rank, I would be fighting, for the first time, in the sandan division.  I've fought that level of people before in other tournaments but now I was officially there myself and I was excited, and a little nervous, to see how I'd do throughout the tournament.

Our division started fairly early, going just after the women's division finished up.  I had a bye into the second round so I got a chance to check out the competition that day, namely the person I would be fighting first off.  I personally don't like byes and would rather fight first round out, but I go with the hand I'm dealt that day.  My first opponent ended up being J. Frazier-Day, from Kent.  She was a wickedly good player whom I'd fought (and lost to) a couple years ago.  So, right out the gate I was thrown into an intense fight and knew I'd have to bring everything I had.  The match started and we squared off, neither of us attacking too early.  We stepped around each other, both fighting for the center and feeling each other out for openings and weaknesses.  I attacked first, going for kote, but it was quickly blocked.  We kept up this back and forth for quite a while, it seemed, with both of us attacking and fending off the other's strikes, until she landed an excellent dou on me to take the first point.  We restarted and I fought hard, but smart, to get back to the point.  My chance came when I stepped back and threw hiki men out of the blue to tie up the match.  Neither of us were able to get another advantage, so we went into not one, but two encho rounds (overtime).  Try as we might, we still were unable to take the lead by the end, so it went to hantei (judges' decision).  I could only see one judge out of the corner of my eye, and he raised the white flag for Frazier-Day.  I thought I had lost, but after congratulating her on a great fight she informed me that I had actually won the decision.  I was moving onto the next round!

Final Score: 1-1 (Ruiz by Hantei)

I made it through!  I was moving on, and my next opponent would be none other than a young, fast kid I've fought three times before...and lost to three times before!  A. Lee, from Vancouver, emerged from his round victorious and would be facing me in the quarter finals.  We stepped in, bowed, and the match began.  I knew I couldn't make any mistakes with him.  Having fought him so many times previously I knew to expect blazing fast speed, good reaction time and a large repertoire of strikes and techniques.  In all of these he did not disappoint.  His first attack came, a men strike, and I was able to manage the distance to avoid getting hit.  I turned quickly to face him, threw a hiki men out at the opening I saw, and glanced off the side of his men.  I missed!  I had the opening and opportunity and I missed.  I quickly re-focused and was able to fend off his attacks by controlling the distance, but he was moving in too fast for me to get a decent counter on him.  He goes for men, I set up for debana kote but was unable to find the target again.  He moves again, I step back or to the side to avoid it but am unable to do anything else.  Partway through the match I noticed he started holding his shinai tip rather low.  I knew he wanted to hit my kote, but part of me still wanted to go for men.  My mistake.  He was able to take my kote with ease as I lifted up into his strike.  We reset and although I fought hard and kept him from scoring again, I was unable to take a point myself and ended the match with another loss to him.  He's very good, I'm proud of the job I did and maybe next time I'll be able to take him.  But not today.

Final Score: 1-0 (A. Lee)

I was able to watch some awesome matches throughout the rest of our division, and took home a video of the finals to study.  A. Lee faced off against Asato, also from Vancouver, in the final match.  They were both young, fast kids, equally impressive against anyone on the floor as they were against each other.  Asato was able to emerge the victor after scoring a quick kote on Lee and holding onto that point until the end.  After the other divisions finished up and lunch rolled around, we were ready for teams.  I would have another chance at doing my best, this time for my team.

Just like in my individual matches, our team got a bye into the second round.  Our opponents would be Tozenji.  Their team was comprised of upper kyus all the way to 3 dans, all of them young and fast.  We had our work cut out for us right from the start.  I would be fighting in the chuken spot, the third spot, on our team, which can be a very pivotal role to play.  Our first team member was able to win his match, our second tied, and I was given the instruction to go out and get a win and get us an advantage.  I stepped up and my opponent was the winner of the 1-2 Dan division, L. Oka.  As the match started I was able to make him play my kendo.  I was patient, controlled the distance, and probed for weaknesses that I could exploit.  I was able to get a good look at his reactions as I stepped in a couple times to force him to attack, and was also able to fend off said attacks without letting him score.  He was fast, and good, so I knew I had to keep playing it safe.  I began my attacks, going for a few counters, and then riding over his shinai to try and take his men.  One flag went up but the other judges waved it off.  I quickly turned and launched a kote at him, which found its mark when he lifted to try and hit men.  All three flags this time.  We reset and I continued to play it smart, but also aggressively, darting in and out of distance and protecting my lead while also looking for any opportunities to score again.  I wasn't able to do so by the end of the match, but I was able to take another win for our team.  the next match went down as a win for Tozenji, and our final match was a tie, which put us into the next round.

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

 Our next match was against a team that we've fought numerous times before, Kent.  They always fielded a strong team, with many of their members fighting on our PNKF regional teams.  This time around ALL of their members were either current or former regional team members.  This would be a good match, no matter how it went.  We began and our first match put us to an advantage right from the start, with a win in our favor.  This was followed up by a surprising unanswered hiki dou in the second match to give us another win.  My turn.  If I won I would seal the match in our favor.  If I tied or lost it would give Kent a chance to get back into the game and possibly take the victory.  My opponent was S. Day, whom I'd fought a couple times in the past.  Our last meeting didn't end well for me.  I fought a sudden death match in teams with him at Obukan last year, and he was able to hit my men as I retreated off a missed hiki dou.  This time I was hoping for a little redemption for that loss.  the match began and he immediately threw a men strike at me.  I was ready, though, and caught his kote early for the first point.  We reset and he took his time with me a bit more, but he was still plenty aggressive.  I was able to fend off his attacks and offer up attacks and counters of my own.  We both had some close calls, with a single flag flying here or there, only to be waved away by the other judges.  At one point he attacked my men, I blocked and turned quickly and answered with a hiki men of my own.  When only one flag went up I immediately came back to kamae, stepped in and slammed his kote as he came charging at me for the point and the win.  It was a good fight, an intense fight, but I was able to take the victory for myself and our team.  Our next fight ended with a tie, and our final match we were able to take another win.  We were moving to the semi-finals!

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 4-0 (Spokane)

I was feeling really good.  We'd made the semi-finals for the second year in a row at this tournament, and our team was doing really well together.  We had a real shot at making the finals and taking first place, but one big obstacle stood in our way.  Vancouver was our next opponent, and their team was good.  It included three national team members that would be fighting at the World Kendo Championships this May, and two up-and-comers, A. Lee and Asato, whom I'd mentioned earlier.  Things kicked off and our first team member, even though he fought well, lost the match to give Vancouver an early advantage.  This was followed up by another win in their favor.  My match was up.  My opponent, Asato, had just finished winning the sandan division, as I'd mentioned earlier.  We started and he immediately took up his distance and began the attacks.  I kept up fairly well for a little while, fending off his onslaught of attacks while launching attacks and counters of my own, but unfortunately he was the better player that day.  He caught me with a quick hiki men as he backed out to take the first point.  Again, I fought hard but was unable to gain any ground or advantage, and after striking a hiki men of my own that failed to score, he chased me down and landed a (honestly very beautiful) tsuki-men combo to take the second point and the win.  That was it. Their team had won, but our remaining members still fought their best.  Our fourth match ended in another win for Vancouver, but in our final match my teammate was able to keep them from scoring and ended with a tie.  Vancouver out-skilled us and took the win, but we definitely fought our hearts out and I think that's the most important thing.

Final Score: 2-0 (Asato)
Team Score: 4-0 (Vancouver)

We were able to watch some fantastic final matches, with Vancouver facing Portland in the final match.  Vancouver once again emerged victorious and took the team title this year.  For myself, I think I did pretty well for my first time in the sandan division.  I fought well, I fought smart, and I didn't try and over-extend myself or let my opponents knock me out of my groove.  I definitely have a lot I still need to work on to improve, but I felt really good with my performance overall.  To paraphrase a saying that I've heard before, "Strike, and reflect.  Be struck, and give thanks."  There are many different ways to take this, but what it means to me is that I must find guidance from both wins and losses.  When I make a successful strike I should think about it and reflect on the points that made it successful.  Likewise, when I am struck I should give thanks to my opponent for showing me my weaknesses so that I may work on improving them.  Let's see what another year of practice and training can do to help me improve for the next UW Taikai!

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair

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