Elisa Au Fonseca
Elisa Au Fonseca is one of the world’s most famous female karate names. With over two decades of experience, Elisa – born in Hawaii – is a several times WKF World Champion and one of the WKF’s brightest shining talents. Apart from her Shito-ryu training and competing commitments, she teaches and conducts seminars internationally.
This year (2011), I had the opportunity to speak with Elisa, and ask her about her illustrious competitive career that has earned her an international reputation. Whilst not Shotokan in focus, I feel this interview can offer some interesting points regardless of style. In fact, several of her drills I have personally incorporated in to my own squad’s training and feel she is both innovative and very well versed in methods of kumite development.
Here within this interview I ask Elisa about her training history, her competitive experiences, and ask about some of her technical and developmental opinions. Shaun Banfield 2011
Questions by THE SHOTOKAN WAY
(Shaun Banfield) Sincere thanks Elisa for agreeing to this interview. I have wanted to interview you for quite some time, so this is a real pleasure for me.
(Elisa Au-Fonseca) Thank you for the opportunity.
(SB) You were born in Honolulu, Hawaii am I correct? Can you please tell us about your childhood and early years living there?
(EAF) Yes, I was born and raised in Honolulu. There is no better place to grow up. With beautiful weather and friendly people, I had a very happy childhood. I used to get very excited about travelling to tournaments in the mainland and internationally. I was always fortunate to travel and so I would train very hard to prepare for competitions.
(SB) At the age of 5, you started Shito-Ryu under Sensei Chuzo Kotaka. What prompted your start in the Martial Arts?
(EAF) My mom tells me that my first instructor was passing out flyers at my elementary school, and I came home asking my mom to start karate. I don’t remember exactly why I wanted to start, but I cannot remember a time that I did not want to do karate.
(SB) Can you please tell us about Sensei Kotaka, and your experiences with him? Possibly sharing a few stories or memories?
(EAF) Sensei Kotaka is very special to me. He has mentored me all through my career. When I was 7, I was sparring him and he made me cry (I was a sensitive little girl). He immediately encouraged me to give him my strongest punch to his rock hard stomach. He had me do this until the tears stopped. It was good for me because I did not walk away afraid to spar again.
Another story happened back in 2004. I already had a world championship in 2002 and I was about to leave for the 2004 championships. Sensei Kotaka told me that although I was good in 2002 and fought well, he knew that in the two years that passed, I had become even better. He said that if I did my best, I would win both my weight category and the open division. I did not know that he believed in me so much. That confidence and support drove me to win both categories that year.
(SB) What were the most important things that he taught you would you say, from a philosophical perspective?
(EAF) The most important thing he taught me was about preparation. He always stressed that the preparation should be tough, that you should push yourself to the limit in your training. Then, if you prepare well, the competition will be the easiest and most enjoyable part of the process.
(SB) And how about from a technical perspective?
(EAF) Sensei Kotaka stressed the importance of solid fundamentals. Our dojo is well known for producing well-rounded athletes. All IKF students train in kata, kumite and even weapons until we are 18. From there, we can choose to specialize in a particular discipline. I think this makes for a physically sound athlete, and a true appreciation for the art and the sport. As an instructor, I expect the same from my students.
(SB) Before we start discussing competition in depth, can you please tell us about your exposure to Weapon training? What have you studied?
(EAF) Our weapons training is relatively basic. We learn katas for bo, sai, kaibo (ieku) and tonfa. The weapons katas give us an understanding of their origins and an appreciation for those who are truly masters of kobudo. I would not consider myself a kobudo expert, but I am familiar with them.
(SB) And what value do you think they provide to the training?
(EAF) Physically, I think it is great training for strength and coordination. Also understanding the varying distances used for weapons helps your understanding of self-defense in general.
(SB) And at what age did you start competing; did you take to it quite naturally?
(EAF) I started with local tournaments around age 7. I don’t think I was very good, but I was not really committed until I did my first nationals at 8. I won a gold medal in sparring, which was usually the case for the next few years. I always did ok with kata, but kumite came naturally to me. But growing up in Hawaii, there was never a shortage of competition. I definitely lost more than I won, but I think it all helped shape my competitive spirit and pushed me to improve.
(SB) By the age of 18, you had won 3 WKO World Championships and 2 WKC World Championships. How important had competition come to be to you by this point?
(EAF) By 18, karate was my main priority and my life goal was to be a WKF World Championship. Although I had the academics to attend prestigious colleges, I chose to stay at the University of Hawaii so that I could continue my training at IKF. I think it was a good choice because I challenged myself at UH by majoring in civil engineering.
(SB) Can you share some of your competitive memories, perhaps your most memorable bouts?
(EAF) As a teenager, I always wanted to be as good as my teammate and sempai, Maile Chinen. She was a very tough competitor and I think that I would not have improved as much without her.
I had two great semi-final matches with Lawrence Fischer of France. She won the world championships in 2000 for +60kg and I knew she was the one to beat. I won both of our matches together, but they were very close. I went on to win the +60kg in 2002 and 2004, but she won it in 2006. I think we both have mutual respect for each other.
My most memorable match was the last one of my career. The USA women’s team was going for their very first time medal in the bronze medal match of the 2010 World Championships. Shannon Nishi and Cheryl Murphy both tied their matches against Egypt and I was the anchor. I knew that I needed to go out with a bang and win this one for myself and my team. It was a decisive win, and I think it was my physical and mental preparation along with a super strong desire that gave me that win.
(SB) In the Shotokan world, the Shotokan specific competitions are rather different to the open-style competitions that exist for example within the WKF. Did you ever enter any Shito-ryu specific competitions? If so, how do they differ would you say to the mixed style tournaments?
(EAF) No, I have not. I respect the style-specific competitions because they uphold traditions, but I believe that the very best competition can be found in open-style competitions.
(SB) And why do you feel that?
(EAF) I do not feel that any one style of karate is better than another. I think the more competitors you have, the higher your level becomes. If you limit participation due to style origin, you are limiting the potential for excellence.
(SB) Naturally, many of our readers will be avid competitors themselves, potentially aspiring to compete at the highest level. What would you say differentiates the highest standard competitors from other competitors?
(EAF) The elite athletes in our sport strive to improve their athletic capabilities. Additionally, these athletes dedicate a lot of time to strategy development. Both of these points, along with a solid base of karate technique make for a complete and successful athlete.
(SB) You have produced a set of instructional DVDs. What was your reasoning behind doing this and can you tell us about your experiences filming them?
(EAF) Whenever someone succeeds in their field, others want to know the secret to their success. I wanted to share the physical aspect of my training, which included kihon, kata and conditioning. Initially, I had planned only on kumite techniques, but I am glad that I ended up showing all aspects of karate, similar to how I learned karate as a child. The filming was a great experience. I got to know Don Warener and Isaac Florentine who have been very supportive of me over the years.
(SB) What holds the most importance to you Kata or Kumite would you say? And why?
(EAF) I think they are equally important. Kata is important to understand the origins of the karate we practice today. It gives us a link to the past, even though kata has evolved over the years. Kumite, however, has changed tremendously, and is the modern day essence of martial arts. Plus, I enjoy training both.
(SB) What would you say is your favourite kata and why?
(EAF) I love when Suparimpei is done well. It is probably my least favorite kata when performed poorly. There is so much detail and perfection required and I love the balance of it. When it is done well, you don’t every notice that it is a long kata. I have always loved Atsuko Wakai’s performances and I was blown away with Antonio Diaz in Serbia. I was lucky to sit courtside for that one, and his strength and intensity is incredible.
(SB) There is a growing trend, for many karateka to have a karate background in a specific style, but to adopt kata from other style in order to compete effectively. How do you feel about this?
(EAF) I like it, but I am not sure many athletes have been successful with it so far. Having trained Shotokan for the past four years (with my husband, John) I realize just how difficult it is to switch from shiko-dachi to kiba-dachi. For a kata athlete, I would expect the differences in styles to be made thoroughly and correctly if they choose to compete with multiple styles. From a pure practice standpoint, I think it is wonderful to learn and practice katas from all styles. It brings deeper understanding for the art and makes for a well-rounded karateka.
(SB) You mention Shiko-dachi and Kiba-dachi, does Shito-ryu have any Kiba-dachi in its kata?
(EAF) My sensei has an extensive background in Shotokan, so we practice Naihanchin katas which are nearly identical to the Tekki series. I think that in general, however, Shito-ryu does not use kiba-dachi.
(SB) What do you think are the primary differences between the two stances, both from a physical perspective, and perhaps from an application perspective?
(EAF) To a non-karate practitioner, they probably look the same, but in reality, they are quite different. If you do both stances, you will find that the stresses on the joints and muscles are different. Personally, I am sore after doing so much kiba-dachi but I could do shiko-dachi all day. It’s really a matter of what you are used to due to your training background.
(SB) You now teach a lot of seminars throughout the world. What is your goal when visiting and teaching for other groups?
(EAF) My goal is to share with these groups my approach to karate. Everyone, especially between different countries, have their own experiences with karate. I think that when people invite me to do a seminar, they interested in knowing my experience.
(SB) Growing scientific study within all sporting fields has stressed the development of FAST twitch muscle fibres in training. Is this something you feel is important, and if so, do you have any specific exercises that you use to develop this in the legs?
(EAF) Plyometric and speed training was an integral part of my conditioning regimen. It was definitely not the easiest part, but I was able to see real gains from this training. My personal trainer, Corey Shackelford, a former college (American) football player, made me into the best shape of my life. I literally spent two hours per week firing the fast twitch muscles and optimizing my power.
(SB) What kinds of Plyometric exercises did you do for the legs?
(EAF) Lots of box jumps and explosive jumping movements using the different planes of my body. We rarely ever did anything straight forward and backwards because we are moving in all directions for our sport.
(SB) And what kinds of speed training did you do for the legs to develop the fast twitch?
(EAF) Sprints and hills are the best, and hardest, type of training. I kept most of my distances short, typically anywhere from 10-200m, but I would do some longer distances occasionally to keep my workouts fresh.
(SB) And how about in the arms?
(EAF) The upper body is very important, as are all parts of the body. I think that most power originates from the legs and the core, but is often executed by the upper body. It is important to strengthen all parts of the body, especially to prevent injury. I suffered from a back injury for the last four years of my career, possibly because there was a strength imbalance between my chest and back muscles. I had to do rehab to even out and be able to have peak performance.
(SB) How had you created this imbalance between the chest and back muscles? What had contributed to it?
(EAF) I think it was mostly a personal problem, but I probably trained my muscles sets in a unbalanced way. We do thousands of push-ups in the dojo, but when was the last time you did a back exercise? Probably not as often, which was my problem.
(SB) And how did the rehab rectify the imbalance?
(EAF) I focused on back strengthening exercises and stretching for my tight muscle groups.
(SB) It has been suggested by many, both within the shobu-ippon competitive scene, and certainly within the WKF competitive scene, that WKF competition has developed a more intelligent approach to fighting. What are the key strategies and tactics that you advocate?
(EAF) I think it is first important to know your physical capabilities and from there, use them to your advantage. I was particularly good at closing the distances quickly with my speed, which made for good hand attacks. I was not, however, a world class kicker, so I used this less in international against my savvy competitors.
(SB) Kicking, particularly due to the scoring nature of WKF competition, is very important. Other than the obvious needs for speed, what is key to effective scoring with kicks?
(EAF) Distance is more important for kicking than speed. The strangest kicks can score due to perfect timing and distance. Many people forget to protect themselves after the initial exchange, which is a perfect time to follow up with a kick.
(SB) Many fighters tend to be natural defensive fighters, whilst others tend to be naturally offensive fighters. Whilst having the balance of both is necessary, which would you say you are most naturally?
(EAF) I would say that I am offensive. My pressure is good and my sen-no-sen is good too. Sen-no-sen to some is actually considered attacking, since it literally means, “before the attack.” I am not one to back down and consider myself fairly aggressive in the ring.
(SB) And how did you work on developing your weaker aspects? Can you give us an insight into how you developed them?
(EAF) I used my training partners to work on my weaknesses. For example, I had trouble covering the distance with a very tall fighter, so I employed one of my students who is 6 feet tall to attack me with the same attacks she used in our match. The next time we sparred, I felt very comfortable and was able to win the match.
(SB) The WKF has received criticism, especially over the last few years, due to its perceived derogatory affect on Traditional karate. How do you feel about this, considering the WKF has opened so many doors for you?
(EAF) I am not aware of this criticism. While people may disagree with the direction of the WKF, it cannot be denied that athleticism in karate is growing. Whether you think that karate should be a sport or an art is really the conflict. I think it can be both.
(SB) Do you think Karate will ever become an Olympic sport?
(EAF) I think that all comes down to politics. The sport itself is amazing and has a huge following.
(SB) What are your feelings about this?
(EAF) I am sad that I was not able to participate in the Olympics, but I knew this reality early in my career. That is when I set out to become a world champion because it was the best I could accomplish in my sport. The rest of this is out of my hands, so I feel satisfied.
(SB) Are there any points you would like to discuss that I have neglected to do ask you about that you would like to speak about?
(EAF) Not that I can think of.
(SB) Can we please say a huge thank you for this opportunity to speak with you?
(EAF) Thank you, it was my pleasure.