Amber Wilson's journey to champion status began way back when she was an eager seven-year-old, watching her father and brother Adam go off to karate practice, and wanting to share in the fun. Amber followed her father to the dojo as soon as she had the chance and began fine tuning her reverse-punch in the kids' classes at Westside Karate Academy in Melbourne. From the very beginning Amber had an instructor she could look up to in David Wilson; although all round he was a hard man to fault, particularly as he doubled as her dad. David Wilson says Amber was set to succeed early, not just because she is his daughter, but because of the attitude she takes and has always displayed in class. "As biased as I am, she is pretty close to the ideal student in that she listens, tries, but also questions anything I or any other coach advises her to do."
Learning everything from kata to head-kicks, it wasn't long before the young student found what she loved most about karate. Amber set her sights on becoming a NAS 'Champion of Champions' early on, and began competing in point-sparring at 10 years old. Since then she's made competition her focus, competing in the NAS every year. "I have always trained in Shito-ryu karate and while I admire the kata in our style as well as the kobudo, my focus has always been in kumite [sparring]. I have always competed in every tournament I possibly could — it's my passion and I love it!"
The appeal of competing in the National All Styles for Amber, comes from the challenge of fighting competitors from different styles and having to adapt to different rules. On top of this, the publicity and recognition that NAS winners receive has been a definite driving force. "I competed in NAS for the specific purpose of winning the Champion of Champions; it was my sole goal as far as NAS goes," she admits.
With her goals so clearly defined, Amber has been working 24/7 in order to pursue them. "I follow a heavy and strict training regimen where I basically train or compete seven days a week. I do three morning strength and conditioning sessions, followed by five night sessions a week," Amber says. "My weekends are spent competing and training, (sometimes) in selective squads like the Vic. [AKF] team or the national team, or at other times weekends are reserved for special training camps."
These elite training camps, run by David Wilson and Shindo instructor and fellow State coach Wayne Noble, are designed to provide intense training for selected athletes who aim to compete overseas. When Amber is not training or competing, she'll more than likely be found teaching at the West Side Karate Academy in Deer Park alongside her dad.
While the long hours and frequent training are run-of-the-mill for Amber, in the lead-up to the NAS event it was necessary to train with more specific goals in mind. "My pre-competition training usually consists of a lot of sparring scenarios," Amber says. Keeping her reflexes sharp, Amber realised she would need to keep her mind sharper. The nerves that make the stomach churn before a big competition, the spectator's eyes bearing down, as well as personal expectations can be enough to put the toughest of fighters off their game. Amber Wilson combats these negative forces by using positive visualisation before a match. "Before I fight, I see myself doing things as fast and strong as I have ever done before," she says.
Amber also receives guidance from her dad, who has worked his way towards many victories in his time. The winner of several State titles, David keeps his daughter on track by reminding her to "see and feel the fight".
She did just that all through the heats and semi-finals of the NAS Nationals last December, knocking numerous opponents out of the race. Amber's category, female heavyweight, just happened to be the fullest weight division on the day, meaning she had to fight up to seven rounds before fighting for the Champion of Champions title. Exhausted as she was, Amber stepped out onto the mat time and again vowing to simply fight her own fight and avoid disqualification.
Having made it through to the last round, Amber found herself toe-to-toe with competitor Sherry Bower of JKA Karate in Queensland. "Sherry was very much like myself in that she relied on her reverse-punch," Amber explains. But the Victorian had another plan under way. "My strategy was [to use] my speed, because I know in NAS the person who is usually first to strike gets the point." With a few speedy head-kicks, Amber achieved her ultimate NAS goal and won her place as a
Champion of Champions
Coach and father David Wilson recalls his feelings as he watched from the sidelines, leading up to the final Champion of Champions bout: "Because she was the heavyweight champion, I was concerned the lighter weights were a little fast and that Amber's power might result in a few too many penalties, but at the end of the day she got the job done."
As Amber's coach, David had been waiting for the day as much as his daughter. "It was our one and only goal in entering the tournament, so to achieve it was very satisfying — particularly as we had to change her style of fighting to adapt to the NAS rules, as we had been formerly focusing on fighting under AKF and WKF rules."
Looking back on her win, Amber feels it wouldn't have been possible were it not for the constant support she receives in the dojo. "My coach is not only the best coach but also the best dad. He can teach what other coaches are trying to teach in a way that makes it clear and useful for me, or any particular athlete for that matter," she says.
Amber claims she owes much of her success to the support she receives outside of the dojo as well. "I can't express how much my mum helps. Not only is she my number-one support at tournaments but she supports me so much behind the scenes as well."
The arduous nature of competition means long hours for Amber and David, and of course lots of that support needed from Sue Wilson and the rest of the family. Competitive karate is certainly a harsh task-master, but Amber believes it's more than worth all the effort. Competitive karate for Amber Wilson is not a mere consequence of practising the traditional art — it amounts to much more than that. "A lot of people think sports karate and competition do not provide the same benefits as traditional karate, but I have learnt (through competition) to recognise what hurts and what doesn't, what is real and what isn't, what effect my actions have on other people and what effect their actions have on me," Amber says. "I can apply these lessons to everyday life."
And so Amber has dedicated and continues to dedicate all of her energy to competing in her chosen art. Looking at her martial arts career so far, it is clear her time is not wasted.
Amber's success at the recent NAS Champion of Champions event is merely one among a list of achievements the young karateka has to be proud of. Amber recalls rising up as an underdog to claim her first big title. "(I won) my first AKF national title when I was 15. I was probably the last person to be picked on the team that year and hadn't won anything much up until then."
She continued on a winning path, taking both the junior and senior championships in 2009, that being the first year she was able to compete as a senior.
A highlight of Amber's martial arts career so far is a trip she took to Europe in 2008. "I was lucky enough to accompany then AKF national coach Morgan Abouzeid on a European tour, where we trained and competed for five weeks. At one stage we drove for 10 hours from our training base in Belgium to the Czech Republic for the European Cup. I won a few fights but the highlight was winning the women's Team Kumite gold medal with my friends Michelle Wilson, Tanya Cooper and Rebecca O'Sullivan. Not only did the young women take gold, but they did it powering through until 1am.
Gold medals aside, karate has come not without its share of challenges for Amber, and no doubt her teammates. Amber reveals that one of the biggest obstacles she has dealt with so far is the lack of female participation in major karate events, an absence of female role models to aspire to, and less attention being paid to those who do participate. "Martial arts have always been male dominated, with very few female coaches, instructors, or female clubs," she laments. "As a result, we are sometimes ignored, especially by those in charge."
Amber points out that the Australian AKF national team doesn't even have a female coach, "even though historically females have achieved a far higher level than males," she points out.
Already working towards a solution, Amber makes her presence known in the karate scene, helping the Victorian State team as part of a leadership group, and teaching and coaching in her own club.
Amber's goals for the future include continuing to act as a leader and continuing to teach at progressively higher levels. It seems she's well on the way to realising her competitive ambitions as well. "My immediate goal is to compete and win at the Junior Worlds this year in Malaysia, and ultimately to emulate our latest World Champion Kristina Mah by winning a Senior [WKF] World Championship."
With her crowning as Champion of Champions, it seems Amber Wilson has made her first big splash in the karate scene, but certainly not her last. Evidently she will be busy preparing for upcoming AKF and WKF tournaments, but NAS competitors had also better keep an eye on her — after all, she has a title to defend.
Tips from a Champion
Amber, what's the most important element in your style of fighting and how do you develop it in the dojo?
Speed and accuracy are the two fighting factors that I concentrate on. [For that] I do a lot of focus-mitt training and partner work.
Consistency is the key for becoming good at anything, but sometimes is difficult to achieve with work and other commitments intruding.
What tips do you have for maintaining the necessary balance in your training sessions and keeping your skills and fitness up?
Depending on what level you wish to attain, you really have to make choices about how to use your time wisely and sometimes you have to make sacrifices to achieve your goals. I rarely have a weekend to myself, and I hardly ever get to go to parties.
How do you prepare mentally for a match, especially when you don't know who your opponent is?
I do a lot of visualising before I fight. I just believe in my ability, and trust that the enormous amounts of training I've done in preparation will work for me.