Going up against some of the best the world had to offer, in one of its largest competitions, Campbell River’s young karate practitioners not only proved they belonged.
They proved they belonged on the podium.
From ages six through 17, a total of six local athletes amassed a total of 13 medals earlier this month at the USA Open Karate Championships in Las Vegas.
“I was somewhat in awe of it when I got there,” said Sensei Nigel Nikolaisen of Northwest Shito Kai Karate, a former Canadian champion who took 10 of his young athletes to the competition. “I’ve been to a couple of world championships as a younger competitor, between 14 and 18 years old. But this one, with athletes from five to 50, with 2,500 competitors in the room, from recreational adults to aspiring kids to the world’s best, was the epitome.”
If his students shared his awe, they got over it quickly. Six-year-olds Piper Darcy and Wynn Clark teamed with seven-year-old Keeli Stewart to win gold in the 7-under team kata (forms) competition, and Darcy and Stewart each won silver in individual kata in their age groups.
Clark went on to earn silver in individual kumite (sparring) to go with a bronze in kata, and Stewart got her third medal with a bronze in individual kumite.
Jenna Scott, 10, gave the NWSK Karate school another gold by winning individual kata and added a bronze in individual kumite.
“The kids, instead of the magnitude of the competition intimidating them, they rose to the occasion,” said Nikolaisen. “I was hoping to medal, maybe once. It was way beyond what I hoped.”
Carihi student Valerie Doyon of Campbell River Shito Ryu Karate got exactly what she hoped when she claimed the North American junior championship in the 16-17 division in the invitation-only North America Cup, one of three separate competitions held as part of the USA Open.
It was Doyon’s second trip to the USA Open, and she had a year to chew over her second-place finish to Mexico’s Veronica Dominguez in the 2014 North America Cup, which pits the top two qualifiers from Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
“I was so bitter about last year, losing by two points,” said Doyon. “It’s hard; it definitely motivated me for this year.”
In her 2015 return, Doyon drew Dominguez in the opening round and posted a win before going on to defeat Cara MacDonald of the U.S. in the gold-medal match.
“It was crazy, it was so amazing,” said Doyon. “The medal is absolutely gorgeous, so intricate. It’s something I’m very proud of, because it says I’m number one on the continent.”
For one weekend, at least, she was number three in the world as well, along with Shito Ryu Karate teammate Casey Brake.
Both earned bronze medals in the Junior International Cup on the opening day, Doyon in the 17-year-old, 57+kg class and Brake in 14-15 girls sparring.
Both athletes train with longtime Campbell River Sensei Roy Tippenhauer, who previously trained Nikolaisen to a Canadian junior championship. Nikolaisen went on to work and train in Ontario before returning 12 years ago to open his own dojo in Campbell River.
“You owe it all to Roy,” Nikolaisen said of Campbell River’s mark on the international karate stage. “He cultivated quite a few national champions, including myself, starting in the 1990s. Honestly, he was the pioneer for karate in this town.”
Overall, Canada shone at the USA Open, with Karate Canada noting the country led all participating nations in medals in the Senior Elite kumite division and earning several team golds.
Nikolaisen noted Vancouver Island overall is well-represented at the top of the sport, with Courtenay’s Pam Ross, his former teammate on the Canadian National Team, and Victoria’s Craig Devlin both on the current national coaching staff.
They would be familiar with Doyon, a two-time silver medalist at the Canadian nationals. And Nikolaisen hopes the national program will one day mark the names of the younger students he introduced to international competition earlier this month.
“We have kids who learned they can put their heads down and go for the provincial team in the next couple of years, if they can go down and mix it up with the best in the world,” he said. “We’re going back for sure. We’re already making our plans.”