One competition was finished, one gold medal had been won, but the day wasn’t even close to done. It was time for the southern fist competition and my partner from the two person set was now my biggest rival. I was set to do the Taiwanese Tiger Crane form. He had been working just as hard on a Leopard Fist form. We had been watching each other prepare for months now and we both knew just how much effort had been spent on preparing for the next five minutes of martial arts competition.
Furthermore, there was only one other school registered for the martial arts competition and we had a bit of a friendly rivalry between us. It was nothing serious, but we definitely wanted to put our best foot forward!
With no downtime and no chance to rest, we were lining back up by the mats. After the debacle of the last competition, I knew I needed to refocus and get my head in the game. There was no partner to save me or make me look good if I messed up this time!
Now, when preparing to compete, a good competitor tries to do everything in their power to be ready for any eventuality. Despite this, something always comes up! And in my case, that something slowly dawned on me as I was awaiting my turn. I began to recognize one of the judges positioned at the corner of the mat. He was the youngest son of the grandmaster of Taiwanese Hung Gar – my teacher’s teacher! Which means he knew the all of the intricacies of the form I was doing and whether I was doing it justice or not.
It was slowly occurring to me that my style might be well-represented amongst the judges. Feeling the pressure build, I scanned the rest of the well-dressed men holding scorecards. And, of course, the grandmaster’s eldest son was seated at the end of the judges’ table. The only thing that could make the situation more stressful would be if the grandmaster was there.
And sure enough, there he was! Seated in the head judge’s seat was the grandmaster, himself Jian Hong Lin (林劍虹)! I had not anticipated having this kind of pressure!
One by one, the other competitors stepped up and bowed, did their form, had their scores announced, and stepped off. I was up last. I was definitely intimidated by the presence of so many luminaries of the kung fu community, but I knew I had to focus through it. Fortunately, this was the form I had spent the most time on. My Shifu had insisted that each of the parts – the tiger moves and the crane moves – were completely distinct, which means I had spent endless practices drilling each individual move until he approved them. By the time I stepped onto that mat, my Shifu had ensured that my body was going to be able to do the form well whether or not my mind was panicking. It paid off.
The moment I stepped out, the fear of a moment before completely disappeared and I found myself lunging and clawing, jumping and striking just like I’d done hundreds of times before. In no time, the form was done and I was breathing heavily on the sideline, waiting for the judges’ scores to be tallied. It was over so fast and I could barely remember even doing the form. It was as if I had done it on autopilot.
Finally, the scores came through. I had won, just barely coming in above my kung fu brother who had taken second place with his leopard form! I couldn’t believe it!
I wanted to celebrate, but I still had a weapon form coming up. With each competition going over time, we got bumped to the afternoon, after lunch. One thing I had not foreseen was how exhausting it was to warm up to compete and then cool down when I was told we were bumped yet another time. It happened again and again. Even though warm-ups don’t take a lot of energy, it can be surprisingly tiring to get yourself ready and psyched up only to calm down and rest over and over.
Finally, lunch came and went and it was time for the last competition: long weapons. There were nine competitors and I was shocked to discover they all came from one school. They were all young men, some maybe even kids, and they were in great shape. Energetic and limber, they were playing around and stretching. Once they saw me, the only foreigner there, their chatter turned to speculation about what I was going to do. It was both intimidating and exhilarating! I didn’t know if I could hope to compete with such young, fit kids! I’m 34 and in good shape, but they were in their prime!
Once again, I was up last. When putting a bunch of Chinese names in order, I guess the easiest place to put a western name is at the end. I stood and watched as the first several competitors came and went. They were good, but not amazing. I was feeling more confident. The next few were quite a bit better, but I had noticed a problem. The best competitors were doing spear forms, which worried me, as spear forms are often more intricate than staff forms. But they were all using the same spear and they had chosen a strange way to build their weapon.
Typically, a spear is built from a stiff, strong wood, like white wax wood. They had made theirs out of rattan, which is fibrous and extremely flexible. Furthermore, the skin had been shaved off of the rattan, leaving a smooth, supple shaft. To the end of it, they had attached a heavy, metal spear tip. You’ve probably already figured out the results. The weapon whipped around with the simplest of movements, springing wildly from side to side.
As each competitor stepped up, they had to wrestle with this crazy spear that seemed to have a mind of its own. The strongest of them couldn’t keep the weapon steady. The corded muscles of their arms stood out like iron wires as they tried to stop the weapon from jumping around. The weaker competitors had even more of a struggle. Some of them were even unbalanced and pulled out of their stances by the wild thing!
Finally, just before my turn, a smaller kid stepped up. I couldn’t imagine how he intended to tame the weapon. Instead, he took a different approach. He managed to flow with the spear, letting it bend as it wanted to and waiting for it to snap back to follow its natural momentum into the next movement. Because of his size, it was still a difficult task for him, but he understood the intrinsic softness necessary to work with a weapon like that. It was very impressive!
Then I was up. I was doing a staff form that was simple, but well-rooted and solid. It’s a beautiful little form, but not complex at all. In future competitions I didn’t even place with the form because, compared to more intricate long weapons, it’s very basic. But this competition happened to be the right place and the right time for a form like that. The judges were just happy to see someone with solid, sharp movements who was in control of his weapon.
I walked away with my third gold!
I went back to my Shifu with my head held high. I’d won gold in each of my competitions! I couldn’t wait to tell him! His response was, “Oh, good.” It felt a little underwhelming, so I pressed the matter.
“We worked so hard for months! You were so insistent that I win and I did! I have three gold medals!”
And then my Shifu dropped some Kung Fu wisdom on my proud butt.
“I pushed you to win because you needed to focus on something and you did. What is a gold medal? Just a thing. You can take it home and feel good. You have three, give one to your mom or something. But I didn’t push you because I wanted more gold medals in our school. We have plenty. I pushed you because now you have very good tiger fist and crane fist and staff technique. That’s the reward. Medals are nothing. This was about focusing so you improve your ability.”
I was dumbfounded. He was right. I’d spent so much time trying to get a medal or a title, it had never occurred to me that the important thing I was taking away was skill! The whole competition was just a means to that end.
And yes, I gave a medal to my mom. The only thing I needed from this martial arts competition in Taiwan was my kung fu skills and my Shifu had already made sure I had earned those. It’s for that experience that I am eternally grateful.