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My Competition Experience in Kawasaki

by on September 25, 2013

I will try to post some videos shortly, but for now I will just write up a short summary of my experience competing at the 10th International Aikido Tournament in Kawasaki.

A glance at the results might suggest that I did not do as well as I did in London, but actually, overall, I was quite happy with how I performed, with only one particular exception, and I felt very fortunate to be able to go out on a high note.

Competition started on Saturday with the embu preliminaries. I was entered into the Dan-grade Junanahon and the Koryu Dai-san. I’d love to put together a freestyle kata one day, but until I can enter with an uke I’ve actually practiced with more than a day or two, I’ll have to stick to the 17 and Dai-san.

First off was the Junanahon with Ian King as my uke. I was a little sloppy on the initial shomenate taisabaki, which is never a good way to start, and Ian and I were on slightly different pages at times, but I still felt very good about the kata, and felt it was a decent representation of the time I spent pondering the kata by myself on the lawn.

Judging kata is of course highly subjective, but I was happy with our performance, and my highly-biased opinion was that our kata was perhaps the best of our quartile, and if not, definitely second or third. Unfortunately, due to the opaque new judging system, I’ll never know exactly how the judges felt about the kata.

As for dai-san, Tiffany and I managed to practice only twice before going on, and we performed an entirely forgetable kata.

Next up was the men’s team randori. I was gratified, if a bit skeptical, about my position on the American A-team, given my grand total of two randori wins in international competition to that point. I continued my tradition of not winning this time around, chalking up 0 wins, 3 losses, and a tie, but, despite the numbers, I was quite pleased with the way I played.

My first match affirmed in my mind the viability of a “soft” strategy; the second was a rude reminder of my vulnerability and fragility; the third was a process of growth; and the fourth match, for which I was very grateful, was an opportunity to go out with heart and style.

We decided to arrange our lineup in terms of strength, and I managed to argue my way down to the 4th slot. Interestingly, the Japanese college teams we played seemed to arrange their rosters differently, putting their white belts and weaker players first.

I felt great about my first match. It came out a tie on points, but one of his points was from two shidos on me for performing techniques (probably yukos) on him for kaishiwaza when he didn’t have two hands on my arm (though in once case the replay shows he did…) so basically, by playing loose and dispassionately, I won the fight but not the game. Fine by me.

In the second match, again against a stronger member of the other team (in fact he came in co-3rd in individuals), I was completely overwhelmed. I don’t think there was a whole lot of “ai-ki” in his “aikido” but he was a strong, fast college kid who knew how to muckle on and throw himself around, and I was not alive enough in the moment to “ai-ki” his well-rehearsed combinations.

His first ippon on me was a sumi-otoshi that seemed to come out of nowhere, and did something unpleasant to my shoulder. I tried to shake it off, but I was on my heels from there. Soon I was out by the much-needed mercy rule.

As soon as the adrenalin from the match subsided I knew something was wrong with my shoulder. I had lots of advice – to ice it (which I tried to explain science does not support) or to see the trainer (which I would have loved to do, but I had to hustle back for a dinner with Ehara-sensei).

I tried to keep my shoulder moving as much as possible that evening, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

When I woke up the next morning, it was all I could do to gingerly put on a t-shirt. The thought that I might be done for the tournament gnawed at me. If indeed I had made it into the final 8 of the dan junanahon (which I admit I pretty-much assumed I had) did I want to pull out, or perform a sub-par kata with my gimpy arm? Did I dare risk further injury playing randori?

My first decision came shortly after arriving at the venue: I was scheduled to play double-duty for the kongodantaisen b-team, performing both a kata and playing randori, but the trainer had not yet arrived, and I was not going to do anything without seeing the trainer first. The other b-team members were very gracious, and I pulled out, effectively killing the team.

Finally the trainer arrived for what was initially a very disappointing session. There was a little poking and prodding, he compared my shoulders a bit, asked me where it hurt, then, rather than any kind of manipulation, massage, or wrapping, he just stuck a few inches of adhesive tape over my shoulder, and asked for my name so they could make an announcement when they had some ice ready for me. I went back up to the USA section of the stands wondering if it might be a good idea to finagle a visit with one of the British trainers.

It took me a few minutes to realize that the pathetic-looking pre-cut tape the trainer had stuck on me was somehow magic. My shoulder didn’t feel good, but it felt a lot better, and I suddenly felt comfortable moving it in ways which I had not earlier. Getting in and out of a t-shirt was still a slow, painful maneuver, but at least my lefty stab was back in the cards.

I thought perhaps the tape was medicated, but Dan, who had some experience with the stuff, was explaining that it was a kind of supportive kinesthesiology tape, then Josh was calling me from down on the floor. Bob and Ian King were nowhere to be found, and they needed replacements for the kongo a-team. Could I do a kata? With this new magic tape? Yes I could.

I hurried downstairs, accepting the ice from the trainers, and pretended that I was going to use it.

After sorting out our substitutions with the officials I ran through the dai-san with Garth to figure out whether the kneeling or standing half would hurt my left arm less. Just as I had settled on the standing portion, the Kings showed up, and I was off the hook.

There was no question in my mind anymore though, I was definitely going to stay in the individual randori competition. Soon I was back down on the floor, pacing back and forth outside D-mat, trying to keep my shoulder loose and the front of my ankles soft. I knew my draw was a Waseda student, and soon I had him ID’d as the big guy with an easy-going look sitting on the floor. I continued my soft-footed-prancing and center-drops. Eventually Kin-san got up and started warming up with a teammate. I saw them practicing for the type of muscular resistance that I had no intention of giving. At least I might catch him a little off guard.

Finally my match came around. It didn’t start well, I wasn’t quite prepared for his size, but I grew more comfortable as it progressed, figuring out how to better match his movement. He won fairly handily, but I took a little comfort in my progress during the match.

I spent the rest of the day getting footage of other matches, and rooting for teammates, other favorite players, and the Meiji Daigaku kid who effed up my shoulder. The better he did, the less bad I felt about my loss. In the round of 8 my college kid won, and, in a surprising turn, Shimada caught Josh Ramey off-guard with a an impressive shomenate for ippon, putting Josh on his heals for the rest of the match.

As Ian and I had not made it into the final 8 in the junanahon (I still have no idea how we fared), team randori was the last event for the Americans. As substitutions were not possible, I asked to be put last. I intended to play only if a deciding match was needed.

Our third-round opponents were the Waseda A-team. As we lined up, I saw that my first-round opponent was anchoring opposite me. His teammate said something and they smiled.

Things didn’t start well for us. Josh, still in a funk after his loss to Shimada, was not himself, and lost a close match. Ian and Antonio lost their matches as well, so despite William Ball’s victory, my match was not mathematically necessary.

My own internal calculations had changed though, and there was no way I was bowing out now. The match was not about a team victory, in fact, it was not about a personal victory either. The match came down to one simple thing: did I have the courage to overcome my fears and do something I could be proud of?

I hesitate to say something which replays might prove false, but I felt like I had a big grin on my face as I stepped onto the mat. For me the match was pure fun, through and through. I took the looseness from my first team match, and paired it with a sense of aliveness which was the the end result of my digestion and internalization of the fears from the second-round loss and injury. I did not win the final match, in fact, I think Kin-san might have done better on points in the rematch, but I have absolutely no regrets. I left everything I had out on the mats, and played the way I wanted to play.

I was handed an opportunity to go out with heart and style, and I couldn’t have been more grateful.

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