2012 Champion

Natasha Gaspersz

2012 Champion

Balancing life and training is a juggling act that's all too familiar to the modern martial artist. Whether it's waking up at the crack of dawn to fit in that morning training session, or lugging yourself onto the mat after a long day at work, finding the time and motivation to take yourself to the next level is no easy feat. Just ask Champion of Champions Delio Senatore.

"(This year) I focused mainly on my career in teaching and growing my martial arts club; therefore, I was unable to train much throughout the year," says Senatore.

As a young man attempting to make inroads in his new career as a schoolteacher, Senatore could be forgiven for failing to go back-to-back at NAS. However, with his instructor and father Sensei Ettore by his side providing constant guidance and support, the Queenslander believes that having a close source of inspiration got him through the weeks leading up to the event.

"It is fantastic having my dad as my instructor. He has been a real inspiration to me throughout my whole life and he continues to do so. All my achievements I owe to my dad and the best instructor I have ever had," he explains.

"He knows how to motivate me and make me believe that I can achieve anything. He is always willing to help me whenever I need."

For Victorian Natasha Gaspersz, all-styles competition was unexplored terrain. Having just begun competing in competitions outside her own style, Go-Kan-Ryu, Gaspersz says that success in club tournaments gave her the impetus to step out of her local 'comfort zone'. After beginning her karate journey in 2007, she has now established herself as part of the Victorian state team. She attributes her early success to the work of her team and its network of instructors, most notably Sensei Jason Knight.

"Sensei Jason (Knight)'s kumite drills and strategy knowledge have been a massive help for me," she says. "The best thing about being a part of the Victorian state team is you are exposed to some great instructors such as Sensei Mark Farello, Sensei Nick Spanu, Sensei Jim Ziogas and Sensei Lisa Beasley. You also train in an environment where everyone aims high and we all have the same goals.
"Being in this environment, you end up feeling inspired to accomplish your own goals."

Using the energy from those around her to drive her forward, Gaspersz made a trip to Japan midway through 2012 to experience karate training the traditional Japanese way. The experience would leave a lasting impression and change her perception on training forever.

"(I was) throughly mesmerised and inspired by the training there. The students train at an intense level at all times, even when sparring there is not much pausing; they just focus on getting their techniques through," says Gaspersz of her Japanese training experience.

"Their techniques are clean within everything that they do, and on top of all that they give 100 per cent, no matter their age or rank. Seeing that just inspires you to step up your own training."

Stepping up the training despite limited opportunities was something that Senatore also had to do in order to prepare himself for the defence of his NAS title.

Unfortunately, it was this intensity that led to a number of setbacks in the weeks leading up to the event.

"I had approximately six weeks to train and get ready for competition. I trained very hard every day in a short amount of time, which led to many injuries. I made a clear focus in my training to work on my cardiovascular fitness, as well as explosive movements in my sparring. I made a specific focus on training my legs to increase the speed in my kicks as well as my footwork."

The intensity of training combined with the injuries and increased teaching commitments would lead to a draining preparation for the December event.

"I had an ankle impingement injury, which made practising my stances in kata near impossible, as well as a knee injury, which restricted the intensity of my training. During this time my work became very stressful with end-of-year exams and having many strict deadlines with marking and paperwork. Throughout the six weeks approaching the National All Styles [Championships] I found myself mentally and physically exhausted."

The exhaustion almost prompted the Queenslander to halt his preparation and give the event a miss, but NAS president Kancho James Casey was on hand to talk Senatore back into action.

"Kancho James Casey is someone who has made a significant difference to my karate in recent years. I was not actually going to compete...but with Kancho Casey's inspirational talk, it ignited my passion to defend my kata and sparring titles. To be honest, I believe I was more physically prepared for my 2011 Nationals as I was not as riddled with injuries as I was this time round... Although one aspect that I definitely improved on was my mental preparation and confidence."

Come the day of the Champion of Champions fights, both competitors had to deal with different demons. For Gaspersz, the mental task of focusing on her own performance rather than the reputations of her opponents was the main challenge.

"Even though I'd be up against competitors I've lost to before, I knew it would just mean I'd need to step up my own game... Hearing the other competitors' achievements as we were all getting introduced made me slightly nervous, as I knew they were all more experienced than I was," she recalls.

"My partner helped with breaking down the fight and the other competitor's style of fighting, and this helped to determine my strategy."

After defeating 2005 Champion of Champions Karen Stone in the final of her division, Gaspersz was faced with the daunting prospect of squaring off against 2012 runner-up Nicki Kennedy, a much larger opponent.

"I knew my fight against Nicky would be very tough, especially because she was runner-up last year. I knew I'd need to score first as much as I could, and so it was time to well and truly step up my main weapon: speed. I didn't keep an eye on the scores or how much time was left, either."

In an exciting end to the women's championship, Gaspersz and Kennedy would slug it out in a close contest, testing each other out with their speedy attacks. Gaspersz capilatised towards the end of the match, scoring in the dying seconds to secure her the title of Champion of Champions in her first NAS Championship.

"The moment I knew I won was definitely a wonderful feeling and all I wanted to do was be with my teammates and partner," she says.

Along with the difficulties he encountered during his preparation for the competition, Senatore managed to further compound his injury woes come the weekend. He was faced with the daunting prospect of fighting the most important fights of the competition with a dislocated jaw after injuring it during the Saturday team sparring.

"The first aid told me that I should go to the hospital. I decided not to, (but) I was lucky as the next day, just after competing in kata, I was sitting down and yawned and then I heard a snap and it popped back in! This was lucky as I was just about to compete in my lightweight sparring division," says Senatore.

Senatore's final against the larger David Auty from XFC Martial Arts was a fast, energy-filled encounter between two great fighters who were no strangers to the NAS mats. After being surprised by Auty's impressive speed, Senatore was forced to reassess his intial strategy.

"I knew he had a major advantage over me with his height, weight and long limbs. I thought if I could block his first attack, I would be able to counter him before he could do anything. I soon found out that my opponent was much faster than I anticipated," he explains.

"I was unable to counter after his techniques and found myself moving into his punches and kicks. I felt like a rag doll being knocked around. I then reanalysed my opponent and realised that my only option was to attack him just before he wanted to attack, catching him off guard and cramming him so that I would be too close for him to counter."

This worked a treat for the Queenslander, allowing him to outscore his Victorian opponent and secure his second consecutive Champion of Champions crown.

Fighters' Tips

Delio Senatore
2012 Champion of Champions

What do you think are the keys to success in NAS events?
You have to make sure that you are not only physically ready, but mentally as well. You need to be confident within yourself and believe that you can win. Leading up to the tournament, visualise yourself doing kata flawlessly, and in sparring getting every point with your favourite techniques, speed and timing.

Cynthia Weggelaar
Advanced Continuous sparring champion

How does the training and conditioning differ from point sparring to continuous sparring?
There are a lot of differences and some similarities between the two. In point sparring, there is a lot more quick movement and pausing. You need to be super quick because you want to get off first. You have to get in, get your mark, then get back out again.

In continuous sparring, you still have to be quick but you also have to be able to take the impact of their attacks. You also have to train a lot more countering and blocking if you want to do well.

What tips do you have for those just starting to compete in continuous and point sparring?
I'd say that students pay extra attention to their blocking and countering. These are the most important aspects of continuous sparring and, to a lesser extent, in point sparring.

In point sparring, I suggest you always bait the opponent and distract them before throwing any attack of your own.
A good drill that will help you a lot will be practising your footwork around a punching bag. Drilling moves like the front-kick and the reverse punch, along with managing distance, will help you become more efficient.

Simon Hu
Shaolin Practitioner and Middleweight Black-belt point-sparring champion

What do you think are the keys to success in NAS events?
I competed in NAS about 10 years ago in the forms. That was probably more my thing back then. One of my schools has the motto 'follow the letter R', which means 'repeat, repeat, repeat'. That's pretty much all I do to prepare for a competition like that; I just keep practising what the karate guys call kata. There's a lot of repetition. Over the years, this repetition has really helped me with my technique and speed, which in turn has translated to improvement in sparring as well.

Most of the competitors that succeed at NAS are karate and taekwondo guys. As a practitioner of kung fu, what was it like coming up against these talented karate and taekwondo fighters?
I like being the underdog and I think most people at NAS enjoy watching someone do something a bit different as well. Particularly the forms, where everyone thinks what we do is really cool and fancy, even though we don't think that ourselves.

How do you combat nerves prior to a big competition?
As you compete more and more, you learn to become increasingly confident in yourself. You have to know you've done the training, worked hard and prepared the best that you could. Just remember that even if you have a bad day at a competition, it doesn't mean you can't get anything out of it. I always tell myself not to worry about the result and that the preparation leading up to the event is what counts. I listen to music as well, it is definitely a big help for me.

Natasha Gaspersz
2012 Champion of Champions

What do you think are the keys to success in NAS events?
Don't get too secure and comfortable with your 'weapons'; you need to always push for more. Always have a strategy and be ready to adapt.

Also, never count yourself out just because you're new or not as experienced as the other fighters. I nearly went down that path until my partner spoke to me and snapped me out of it, otherwise I might not have won.

What kind of strength and conditioning do you do?
I do a lot of power-based exercises that help build muscles to move more explosively, therefore enabling better movement speed — things like seated core exercises, air squats and plank variations are all part of my training.

There are also a lot of footwork drills. What are your favourite drills?
I drill the lunge reverse-punch and gyaku-tzuki step-through combination the most when in the gym.