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Chris Rahardja (pictured left with famous rugby All Black Jonah Lomu) is a young karate-ka with a big future. As well as competing and succeeding in many national and international tournaments, he is the first martial artist ever to be nominated at the prestigious Halberg Awards - New Zealand's 'Oscars' for sports people - all at the ripe old age of 17!
PA: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you Chris. How old were you when you started training and what got you interested in the martial arts and specifically karate?
Chris Rahardja: I started when I was five as my parents wanted me to do something and they thought karate would be good because it would teach me some good values and how to defend myself. Sport was not the first thing that came to mind really, I started competing when I was eleven so a good 6 years of traditional karate training before I entered tournaments. I started karate because Dad did kung fu back in Indonesia and he thought karate was a good solid, powerful style [PA: I think that is probably the same for most kids - they end up in something their parents choose for them. CR: Yeah, pretty much]. I am pretty grateful ending up doing karate as when I watch Taekwon-do I am glad I didn't do TKD cause watching it at the Olympics I was just not very impressed with it, although I have trained with the likes of Logan Campbell who went to the Olympics and his legs are super fast but when you are fighting someone it [TKD] just doesn't quite click for me.
PA: Which style do you study?
Chris Rahardja: Fushin Ryu Karate New Zealand, a Ryobu kai / Wado-ryu based style.
PA: How often do you train and what does your training consist of?
Chris Rahardja: Training changes depending on what I am doing, for instance last year leading up to the World's I was pretty-much training everyday, consisting of short intervals, short bursts but now at the moment it averages maybe 1.5 to 2 hours [per session] and can consist of kata - doing all my kata to try to get my fitness back up. I try to do weights 3 times a week maybe, focusing on upper body and legs to build strength and stamina, and then I have specialised kumite training on a Thursday night as well which is when the whole Auckland squad comes together which is quite good. I do three or four basic classes a week focusing on kihon, which is important for both kata and kumite and to get my core strength working.
PA: So you train everyday?
Chris Rahardja: Pretty much, I have a day off every second Sunday.
PA: That's a lot of training!
Chris Rahardja: Yeah, fitting it in with school is quite hard (laughs).
PA: Do you have a specific diet, and if so what does it consist of?
Chris Rahardja: Umm, diet (laughs), I'm quite guilty of not having a good diet - I can't say it's the best diet, I'm not a big fan of vegies to be honest, I can eat potatoes and stuff but the greens, umm, I'm pretty bad and I admit that, but I am trying to get better, I am improving, but the night before a tournament I try to load up on Carbs and I find that does work quite nicely [PA: For that energy release?] CR: Yeah, especially in karate as it's quite anerobic, kind of like sprinting so to have that stored energy from the carbs is good, so I'll normally try to have a big pasta the night before then I'll have two bowls of cereal, two pieces of toast and Milo in the morning, followed by banana's to get the potassium and salts up as I cramp quite easily. I also focus on trying to keep the fluids up as well.
PA: Is your metabolism pretty good, after all you are only 17?
Chris Rahardja: Yeah, it is quite fast but I think it is slowing down a bit - I notice I have to watch what I eat a bit more because I used to be able to eat and eat and eat and I'd be burning it off quite fast but I am starting to watch it a bit more.
PA: When did you become interested in competition and what are your competition goals?
Chris Rahardja: I started getting interested in competition when I was about eleven, not really to get into competition, my first one was really to train with everyone else and get my karate as a whole better, and so Sensei Duane's dad, our head instructor, Hanshi Len Monk sent me down to Wellington for one of the national camps, which was a selection for Oceania 2004 in Fiji, which was alright, I wasn't very high up - I had never won a national title yet and after that they kind of got me more motivated to get me better, so I started training more and the real breakthrough was the New Zealand Open during that 2004 year where I won my first kata division and from there it kind of just went straight-up and I think the biggest improvement was during that few months was the biggest period I've ever had and then I got in the NZ Oceania team for kata which was held in Fiji and ended up winning that (I never expected that, really it was a big surprise) and from there I just kept going.
PA: So where do you want to go with it?
Chris Rahardja: At the moment my biggest goal is to be one of the first New Zealander's to win a medal at Senior World's - it's never been done yet - I got pretty close last year, I was in the bronze medal match for kata which is a first time it has ever happened for New Zealand, I was really proud and I didn't expect it either (in karate everything seems to come in surprises to me, really, I never come to expect it) but this year I have Junior World's in Morocco and I'm hoping to win a medal in both kata and kumite hopefully cause I think the juniors have done quite well recently, Letitia Carr from Wellington got a bronze 4 years ago in Cyprus, and 5th in Turkey 2 years ago (2007) at the Junior Worlds, we are working together at he moment as well so hopefully New Zealand as a whole can win quite a few medals.
PA: You participate in a number of national and international competitions, how are you supported financially?
Chris Rahardja: The team that competed at the 2008 Senior worlds received some support from the Lion Foundation for our airfare but apart from that not very well to be honest, karate is not a big sport in New Zealand obviously, so it has been hard., I think it is one of the reasons New Zealand has not been excelling on the international stage, we have the potential but in Europe the martial arts is big, especially karate and judo, it is one of the most participated sports, they have tournaments every weekend at a high level, but in New Zealand it's hard to get that financial support. That being said, it has been improving a lot, I am starting to get a bit more especially with my past results. My college (Rosmini College) is starting to support me quite well now, Karate NZ (through SPARC) are going to pay for Morocco which is great and this year I have received a grant through the Adastra foundation which does help - it lifts the burden off you and gives you more time to commit to training and school.
PA: Is it primarily your family financially supporting you at the moment?
Chris Rahardja: Yes, Mum and Dad are doing an awesome job.
PA: How do you prepare for competition?
Chris Rahardja: We have the year planned in advance so I can work on my fitness and the core basics and blowing the cobwebs off from the last year. The month before the competition we try to pick the intensity up as much as we can, train more but in shorter periods - that's what we are working on at the moment.
PA: What was it like to be nominated for the 2009 Westpac Emerging Talent Award at the Halberg Awards?
Chris Rahardja: Awesome! A great privilege and honour - I think it is the first nomination of a martial artist at the Halberg Awards - I feel very proud and privileged to have done that. You also get to rub shoulders with the [sporting] elite and Olympians - it is an awesome experience and getting knowledge back from them is great, you can incorporate knowledge from other sports into karate, so yeah it was an incredible experience.
PA: Now that a martial artist has been nominated for the Halberg awards, do you think the main-stream media will start to recognise the martial arts?
Chris Rahardja: I think so, especially with Taekwon-do and Judo at the Olympics martials is slowly - not that fast - but it's slowly getting up there, and being nominated at the Halberg Awards is a sign that karate is being recognised, before when you spoke of karate the public thought it was all about breaking bricks and it was considered quite stereotypical. There was a stereotype that is slowly kind of being changed which is good I think. It is slowly getting more recognised.
PA: Would you like to see martial arts represented in the mainstream media such as Sky, TVNZ or a dedicated martial arts channel?
Chris Rahardja: Yes, I would love to because the karate at tournaments in New Zealand at the moment is not at the standards it should be to be producing top class karate-ka, yeah, being televised would be awesome, it has been a few times but I think it is mainly about budget - karate NZ can't really afford it at the moment, I think trying to get the balance between supporting the players and trying to get media coverage up is quite hard for them. It would definitely be awesome though.
PA: What are your favourite techniques?
Chris Rahardja: In kumite, just Gyaku Zuki, it's so solid, simple - it's always there, you can always depend on it, whereas with kicks they can be quite risky, I don't tend to do them unless I am quite high-up in the points already, especially given my style of fighting, I tend to anticipate quite a bit and gyaku zuki is a great counter - get them before they get me, I quite like that - yeah the gyaku is awesome.
PA: Do you have a preference for kata, kumite or kihon?
Chris Rahardja: They are all interlinked - kihon and kata go together, quite simply you need kihon to make kata, you need kata and kihon to make kumite, I think quite a few karate-ka around the world are specialising in one or another, which I don't really agree with, I can understand what they are trying to achieve, but for me it works to do all three, so I'm not going to change any time soon, so no I don't really have a preference.
PA: What are some of the highlights of your martial arts life so far?
Chris Rahardja: Umm, the biggest one so far is getting 5th equal at the Senior World's last year, at the age of 16 which was a pretty big shock, it was an awesome experience. The biggest turning point in my martial arts life though was Fiji Oceania when I was just 12 years old, no one really knew me, Fushin-ryu as a club had quite a low status, I think the biggest club was KSK in Wellington and they were dominating everything at the time, and to make that break-through was quite important I think, it set me up, yeah.
PA: How do you balance your training and non-martial arts life?
Chris Rahardja: Setting training and schoolwork as my first priorities do take away some of my free time and social life and all. But success only comes with sacrifices and I'm willing to give up my free time and have little or no social life for parts of the years as in the end it's all worth it. Being real busy with my training and schoolwork, any free time I do get, I use to catch up with my friends or spend it with the family and try and use every second of it.
PA: What are your martial arts goals?
Chris Rahardja: As a whole just to get my karate better, no one is perfect, yeah, just to have that security that I can always defend myself. I have never been in a 'real' fight, I think I am fortunate - I don't want to be in a fight, I guess but to have the knowledge that you can diffuse a situation at anytime is a good feeling.
My other goals are, this year is to place at the Junior Worlds in Morocco in both Kata and Kumite and ultimately be the first New Zealander to become a World Champion in either Kata or Kumite at a WKF Senior World Championships. Hopefully at next year's Worlds in Serbia or the 2012 Worlds in France.
PA: Do you have any plans to become an instructor in your own-right?
Chris Rahardja: At the moment I am helping teach, giving back to the club and New Zealand as a whole is quite important, once my tournament days are over I still want NZ to be up there, so building up the little kids is important and if I can help in anyway and sharing my knowledge with the younger ones is good, sharing that experience with other kiwis is good, as we don't have the same experience as the Europeans have. Coaching is something I am interested in doing once I have stopped competing, but hopefully that is quite a while away!
PA: What age is a good age to retire from competition?
Chris Rahardja: That's a hard question; I think for Kata age is a bit higher than for kumite, for instance Sakumoto Sensei from Japan won 4 world championships (3 WKF and 1 world Cup) - His first one when he was 38, 40 and 42yrs old. So hopefully I can go that long in Kata, the Champion from Italy won Kata for the 3rd time and is now 32. Kumite is a bit different because it is faster, fast attacks and counters, so I think it is a bit younger, maybe mid thirties is nearing the end of their career with the peak age being around 28.
PA: Not long in the big scheme of things...
Chris Rahardja: No, not long at all, so you have to make the most of every opportunity.
PA: What do you think the study of the martial arts has done for or given you?
Chris Rahardja: It's given me a lot of patience, good life values, more confidence - and you have to have confidence in things like kata or kumite competitions, it's given me confidence in school as well. It's pretty hard to pick one out, but as a whole I think it has made my life quite a lot better.
PA: Do you think martial arts is separate from you or do you think you live a martial arts lifestyle?
Chris Rahardja: Somewhere in between, there is always an element of martial arts in the way I live my life such as temperament, controlling my emotions, thinking and not just reacting, I think I have a good balance at the moment, I don't live my life outside of karate obsessing about karate, I think people would think I was quite weird (laughs), when I train I train and when I am at home I just do normal things, there is always an element of martial arts but it is not eclipsed by martial arts.
PA: Would you recommend the martial arts to other young people, why and what advise would you give to those starting out?
Chris Rahardja: Go for it. Any martial art is a good one, they all teach similar principles although it depends on what your aims are I guess, but you just have to give it a go and not hold back. If you hold back you won't get very far. Don't be scared and don't believe what you see in the movies (laughs), the most common questions you get is 'are you a black belt' and 'do you break wood' and I think the martial arts are totally different to that, I think to get that image out of kids heads is really important, and the only way to do that is to get people involved.
PA: What advice can you give to other martial artists?
Chris Rahardja: Don't slack off, even when the going gets really hard just don't slack off. All the hard work is worth it, the mentality to keep going is really important, I think that is one of the big differences between the people who make it and those that don't is that mentality because at their best everyone is physically strong and fast, and what separates people is that top 9 inches (point's to his head), the ability to push on, the heart, the passion to keep going is very important. A lot of people share the same speed, fitness, flexibility and skill but that passion can be the difference.
PA: Do you have any heroes or role-models?
Chris Rahardja: Sensei Sakumoto who is the current national coach for Japan, 3 times WKF world kata champion. He's awesome, someone I look up to and I have had the privilege to train with him, he was a very humble person and the power he produces is incredible, I also study his excellent kata. I also respect Wayne Otto for his sparring, he has won 9 world title medals and he is just awesome. I have also had the privilege to train with him as well and talk to him and just watching his Gyaku Zuki and the power he generates is amazing. He is the current English Coach but has just retired. I also admire the current Open World Champ Rafael Aghayev who has revolutionised sparring by introducing elements of boxing which is amazing. He has quite a lot of finesse and introduced a more fluid style of sparring.
PA: Is there anyone you would like to acknowledge?
Chris Rahardja: My parents and family who have always been there; my coach who has been there every step of the way and has helped make me who I am; my school; my friends; my fellow team members who can really help you - when you are having a tough fight and you hear your team screaming for you it lifts you up and gives you that extra piece of energy to keep going; my massage therapist who keeps me in quite good condition, keeps my muscles nice and relaxed when they are tight.
Thank you Chris for your time. Congratulations on your nomination and all the best for the future.