Kendo team fights way to second

University support and team fundraising finally gave the UCSD kendo team its first chance to participate in a tournament this year — and it represented the university well, finishing one point behind UCLA in the 10th annual Shoryuhai Intercollegiate Kendo Tournament at Harvard University April 22 and 23.

The UCSD team sent two squads, led by captain Takumi Kato, to Massachusetts to compete against schools such as Yale, Cornell, Harvard, University of Washington and Soka University. The two teams, separated by skill and belt level, are each top kendo squads, as they faced each other in the semifinals of the tournament. However, Team A is clearly superior, as it is composed of all black belts, while Team B has a mixture of black belts and less experienced fighters. Besides Kato, UCSD’s first team was made up of Ann Tamura, Gene Kim and Bryan Cho. Tamura, who took second in individual competition on April 23, competed against mostly male opponents to lead the team to its third-straight top-three finish at the tournament. According to Tamura, she would rather face females, but understands it is not always a possibility.

“I prefer women, but at Harvard there aren’t many girls playing,” she said. “There are a lot of women in kendo and a lot of them are better than guys, because in kendo, strength doesn’t matter and height doesn’t matter. It is more mental than physical.”

Matt Schultzel, a member of Team B, agreed that Tamura faces no disadvantages as a woman.

“When I play her, I know I’m going to lose already,” Schultzel said. “I have a mental block that she’s going to clean the floor with me after seeing her play. Your opponent can be physically better than you, but if you get inside their head, you will win. She plays two or three 20-minute matches and she’s this little girl against huge guys pushing her around and she’s taking it. And you can totally see it working in their head because they get frustrated after 20 minutes of not being able to do anything against her.”

Sophomore Tamura’s dominating play is the key component to UCSD’s long-term success. Last year, UCSD took first place overall at the Shoryuhai Kendo Tournament using the same members as this year’s first team. Two years ago, the team again finished a close second, but the competition was filled with more drama this year. The team finished only one point behind the Bruins, a team it always battles with at the top of kendo standings.

“It was pretty devastating because we were so close to winning,” Kato said. “The thing is, all it really comes down to is the effort and the hard work and dedication each team put in. When you practice it really shows, and I know the UCLA team was practicing really hard. So it was devastating, but they deserve it.”

While a second-place finish might not have been ideal, every tournament UCSD gets the chance to compete in is appreciated. Without the funding or popularity of other NCAA or club sports, the kendo team often doesn’t have the means to take trips to compete across the country. According to Tamura, it took $5,000 for the team to compete in the tournament, and that was not including personal expenses. These high costs make it difficult for the team to participate in tournaments such as ones held at the University of Washington and Yale.

Although the Shoryuhai Tournament was the first time that the kendo team officially represented UCSD this season, it does compete in various events in the Southern California Kendo Federation.

According to Schultzel, the kendo team gets plenty of practice at UCSD and other dojos around San Diego and Southern California.

For Tamura, she gets practice in other areas as well, including a chance to play for the U.S. national team at a tournament in Michigan. Tamura said she has tried out for the team the last few years, but had the chance to compete with it for the first time only recently, when it placed first as a part of the Southern California Kendo Federation.

Tamura described the differences and similarities in competing with UCSD and on the national team, but said she did not have a preference.

“For me, the UCSD team is good enough,” she said. “But the national team is really challenging so it encourages me to practice harder. This January was our last tryout for the U.S. team for the world championships, and last year I was working every single day. But when I heard we were going to Harvard again, I started working harder. They are both challenging to me and both force me to practice more.”

Although constant practices may seem like a burden, Tamura insists that kendo has been a great activity throughout her life. She started after her older brother’s kendo instructors encouraged her to learn the martial art at the age of eight. Since then, she says that kendo has given her good discipline, tough exercise and plenty of friends.

While Tamura stresses the benefits of the martial art, to those who do not understand its strategies, kendo may seem too dangerous or too daunting to attempt to learn. However, Schultzel insists that kendo is safe for all and easy to get into.

“In our sport, it looks like its rough but you’ll get hurt more in basketball or volleyball than you will in this sport,” he said. “You’re wearing full body armor and so you get a bruise every once in a while when someone misses, but that’s about it. There’s no way you can get hurt, unless you are screwing around.”

Schultzel also said that many people are hesitant to learn kendo because they think it takes years and years of dedication. However, Schultzel started as late as college and now competes on one of the best college kendo teams in the country.

Even if kendo gained more participants, it would not mean a bigger team or more competition, Schultzel said.

“We need more money,” he said. “We could bring in three teams if we had more funding because we have enough players, but UCSD has a problem with allowing martial arts groups as sports clubs, meaning we get less money.”

Despite the disadvantages, the UCSD kendo team made the most of its lone opportunity to compete. And, given the monetary freedom to take on more tournaments, the team should be one of the most competitive UCSD sports for years to come.