Athletes of a different type, a different art

Case Kung Fu prepares for international competition

Photo credit Arianna Wage / Observer
Two Case Kung Fu members practice Shuai Jiao throws.

JP O'Hagan, Staff Reporter

On the top floor of Veale Center, a group of artists gather to practice their skills in preparation for an international display.

These are no ordinary artists however; this small group of dedicated martial artists hones their skills in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. This particular Saturday the focus was on Shuai Jiao or (or Shuai Chiao), an extremely practical type of Kung Fu, focused on grappling and attempting to throw one’s opponent to the ground. The classic “everyone was Kung Fu fighting” certainly popped into my head, but this group showed that Kung Fu and especially Shuai Jiao go far beyond that catchy beat. As the team prepares to send many of its members to Rome, Italy to compete with Team USA in the Shuai Jiao World Tournament, there dedication and passion is evident in their heavy breathing and sweat as they leave everything on the mat.

Shuai Jiao is one aspect of Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. The fighting is considered a practical style, focused on gaining a point of control, and then throwing one’s opponent. The competitors wear durable jackets, color-coded to help judges distinguish between the fighters. The jackets provide a point of contact and control, similar to judo. “Unlike judo we wear short sleeve jackets, and the lapels are farther apart, in order to grapple since we work the legs and stuff but focus on the throws,” said coach James Van Doren. “It is one of the traditional pieces.”

Van Doren, the team’s coach trained under one of the father schools of Shuai Jiao. He is seen as a trainer by this school and when Team USA has spots to fill, they approach Van Doren and other trainers like him. As a result, the members of Case Kung Fu have the unique opportunity to compete on an international stage. The tournament they are attending will be occurring May 16 to 18 and they will be competing against teams from 27 countries including France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Israel, Russia, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Australia, China, Mongolia, Taipei and Hong Kong. Team USA has four teams competing in a double elimination tournament. The tournament has multiple weight classes and the U.S. is allowed to bring two men and two women to the competition. This opens up a lot of opportunities for participation, but the Case team still competed to be considered for those positions.

The Case Kung Fu team is honored to send nine of their members to Rome to compete. Sophomores Katieri DeLessio, Amy Wang and Ameera Khalid, will compete in the 48 kg, 52 kg and 60kg weight classes. Shannon Harkin and Elanor Drushel, both alumni, are competing in the 56 kg class. Khalid and Heather Hall will compete at the women’s 60 kg class and Jonathon Cole will compete in the same class in the men’s class. Leah Neustadt will represent Team USA in the 75 kg class and Raymond Zackowski rounds out the Case delegation competing in the 115 kg class.

The entire Case Kung Fu team forms a diverse yet fun team of members. Their passion for their art, while an extremely athletic art, shines through their daily lives. Khalid, this year’s vice president and next year’s president, even came to Case for the opportunity to be involved with Kung Fu. Each member had some experience in martial arts, but they all have a different reason that they continue to come back, even though they often end up panting for air with their backs on the mats. Ranging from a stress relief for some, to a way of life for others, to an almost addiction to the adrenaline rush of the fight, each member finds that their passion lies with the art.

It is an art even though it is a highly physical athletic competition, seen through the strength, flexibly and endurance needed to compete at a high level. It is performed at that high level even during practices. Despite the connotations of art as flowery and pretty, Kung Fu, and Shuia Jiao in particular, is a form of art that requires a lot of athletic ability. It becomes the perfect mix, a martial arts focus, played out as an athletic event, or perhaps more accurately the most brutal art of all. “The key is it takes the athleticism of a sport but it also takes the technique that you would associate with an art,” said Khalid. They all talked about how the club is a family, a great group of friends. This important aspect is easily seen in the joking lighthearted interaction between the group minutes after throwing each other to the ground.

Through the instruction of Van Doren, the team has learned a wide variety of moves and, while they may not be masters in any particular move, their ability to utilize so many throws has garnered success for the team. The seven women who made it on the team mark a particularly huge accomplishment for any team, and Case Kung Fu has put a big emphasis on the women as well as the men. This is the second year they have sent teammates to an international tournament, after competing last year in China. “Since we are a sports club, and we only really have members for a few years, we don’t focus on mastering a few moves or even styles. We study many styles and it gives us an advantage, if the first move doesn’t work, we try another,” said Van Doren. The team has risen to competing on the world stage due to this style but also through their personal dedication.

In preparation for Rome the team is holding a Shuai Chiao tournament of their own this weekend in the Veale Center. They all spoke with a lot of excitement about using this competition as a time to prepare for their international trip. They are also fundraising through a GoFundMe page and a bake sale. A lot of preparation, and sacrifices go into making the trip. However the team is evidently excited to show the world what they can do.

“It feels good to be able to train enough to the point where you feel strong enough and skilled enough to handle yourself in a fight,” said DeLessio. By every indication the Case Kung Fu team is strong and skilled enough to do just that at the international level.