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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

El Condor Pasa – (If I could)

Back in the 1980’s SEKU (The Shotokan of England Karate Union), the karate association where I grew up, used to have successful residential courses on the Isle of Wight. Many of my friends at the Portchester karate club would go along for the week or weekend and many treated the week as their yearly holiday.

I used to receive the letters and application forms, but I never attended the courses.

For many years I convinced myself it was because we could not afford it and so I had not passed the details to my parents. The truth of it was that I was a little nervous of being away from home without my family and I simply did not have the confidence or courage to go.

Instead, I avoided the option.

In January 2000 I went back to karate after six years out of the dojo. I was now 21 and much more confident and self-assured. Sadly, I discovered that the Isle of Wight courses were no longer running and had been replaced with a three-day course at the Mountbatten Centre in Portsmouth. The training took place over the May bank holiday.

I was determined to go…. If I could!

I had a car accident in the February but was only out of the dojo for a couple of weeks and was keen to train on the course. Strangely I was one of only a few from my home dojo that planned to attend. Somehow as an adult the script had flipped.

I was a first kyu at the time (I had failed my black belt grading in 1992) and did not really know anyone in the wider association. But somehow that made it feel more special. I was doing this on my own and being braver than I had been growing up. I was starting to embrace new experiences.

I changed and entered the hall without making an impression on anyone. I was just one of the crowd…… and it was VERY VERY busy!! This was my first karate course as an Adult, and I could feel the anticipation and energy in the building.

The Sports hall soon filled with what seemed like a few hundred people and I was towards the junior section of the line-up. I stretched quietly and took everything in. I felt at home.

This is where I wanted to be!

At that time, I used to train 6 or 7 days a week at a gym in Fareham and I was in pretty-good shape. But here, everyone looked different. I remember noticing how the senior black belts moved and carried themselves. I could not put a label on it at the time, but I could sense the physical capability of some people just by how they stood.

I also remember noticing how ‘strong’ everyone’s feet looked!

The particularly talented people had a presence and physicality not just defined by muscle or fitness. I found that intriguing and I instantly wanted it for myself.

I would go for it ….. If I could!

I can remember a few things about that weekend. My Sensei, Mervyn had told me to make sure I got into the front line to make sure I was ‘seen’.

I recall practicing Bassai Dai with Sensei Dewey while my teacher took the kyu grades and Sensei Hazard took the black belts behind the curtain and into the other half of the sports hall.

On the first day in the afternoon, I was in a brown and black belt class with Sensei Hazard. I paired up with a Justin and his Sister from Plymouth and Laura Castle from the Billingshurst dojo. Sensei demonstrated on a young Black belt called Dave Galloway.

We worked on kumite drills and kicking…… lots of kicking. I loved it! But most of all I enjoyed the section on Kikomi (Side thrust Kick). Sensei had demonstrated his slow Jodan (Head) kicks on Dave Galloway and It had me spellbound.

I wanted to be able to do that…… If I could!

Sensei Hazard by Bernard Rose Photography

I drove home after day one and I was buzzing. When I got home, Dad was sat in his chair (real men of a certain generation all have their own chair…. I however am pushed out of mine by the dog.. lol). I replayed everything to Dad and told him that I had just seen karate that I wanted to emulate. ‘Nice one Matty’ he said…… ‘Go for it’.

I also remember talking about explosive power and how I wanted to be able to produce that……. I decided to aim for it….. If I could!

On that course (I think it was the third day) I learnt Unsu kata and felt the pressure of Sensei’s stare for the first time. At the end of the course, we all returned to our places in line. The hall was four lines deep with over 300 people training easily. My feet were blistered like never-before and I did not know you could remove so much skin from your feet by training. My legs felt like lead!

It was Sensei Hazards role to then send us off buzzing. We performed the punch combination from Unsu faster and faster and then performed a kicking drill from the floor that I still regularly teach to this day. Finally, we did press-ups…… lots of press ups. It was a spirit and determination test, and I was right in front of Sensei.

This was the first and only time my gym work was useful on the course.

Finally, Sensei held the last press up, chest one inch from the floor and looked around the hall daring people to drop. Inevitably people started to concede. Soon I could feel Sensei staring at me. I dare not look back (at least not directly) but I did not drop….. this went on for what seemed like an eternity. But I did not drop. I wanted Sensei to notice my desire to be there. I wanted him to notice my spirit. ….. I wanted to stand out ….. If I could!

That evening I went to our favourite club Route 66. My best friend Gav was there and so was his girlfriend Kelly. I was so excited talking about the course that I accidentally poked Kelly in the eye while talking about Unsu. The poor thing had to go home and I have never lived it down….. not even now 21 years later! (Sometimes enthusiasm pollutes control!)

It is unfeasible that we will have any big Karate courses to attend until at least the immunisation programme has been completed. That is a real shame as training on a busy course surrounded by hundreds of likeminded karate students is a fantastic experience. It can offer inspiration that drives us for many years.

Fortunately, we can still engage with our community online.

Last weekend I taught three separate one hour karate classes to honour my Dad one year after his passing.

I had been struggling with the approach of the Anniversary, so I decided to direct my efforts towards a positive experience for myself and my students.

I wanted to host a course and do service to my Dads example, his spirit, humour and charisma ……… if I could!

The week before the course I practiced and rehearsed my classes and at times I let Amazon Music pick my theme tunes to train to. On one of the days the Simon and Garfunkel classic ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ played. Coincidentally my Dad loved this album.

I have clear memories of singing ‘Cecilia’ with him in his Mazda builders van back in the day. But listening again to the album one track stood out to me like I was hearing it for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with the Album the second song is called El Condor Pasa (If I could) and is based around a Peruvian melody. While I trained, I absorbed every word, and it was like the song was talking to me.

‘I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail,

I’d rather be a hammer than a nail’.

Maybe coincidence or maybe something deeper. But regardless the lyrics resonated for me. I remembered what I had desired for my personal karate early in my career, my conversations with my Dad about it and most importantly his determination to live life on and by his own terms.

Back in 2016 my colleagues and I hosted a charity course at Petersfield for Myeloma UK in honour of Dad and he gave a powerful speech at the end of the course. At the time he had finished with the words:

‘I have Myeloma, but Myeloma does not have me’.

Dad chose to live life in the hope of a cure and rather than focusing on the challenges he concentrated on living his life ‘one day at a time’.

Hearing El Condor Pasa helped me remember this sentiment and design the course content accordingly. We focused on the ‘moment’, Training hard and happily ……because we could!

We concentrated on courage, determination, and family … again ….. because we could!

I was overwhelmed when we surpassed £2000 for the charity. I had originally hoped for £500. Again, this generosity illustrates how loved my Dad was and how many people he helped or inspired. Thank you everyone who donated.

Dave Galloway, Sensei’s pair-up who inspired me on the course back in 2000 trained on this course. So did my best friend Gav and his daughter Libby. (His wife was working or otherwise would have happily reminded me of the Unsu eye poke memory). I was also thrilled to be joined by many karateka from all over the country. Sensei Kevin Slaney 6th dan in Inverness, Sensei’s Adam Cockfield and Dan White from Total Shotokan, Sensei Mick Lambert from the Isle of Wight, our dear friend Sensei Hannah Hollister and her daughter Lexi in Cornwall, Sensei Bex and Ros in Plymouth, Sensei Jim Lewis, Paul and Family in East Sussex and many more of you that made up the 60+ people training. I even had some people tune in just to watch!!!!! Thank you so much.

On reflection, I guess Inspiration comes to us all in many ways.

The example of another, the skill of an expert, the teaching of a genius, the courage of a loved one, the smell in the air or the lyrics of a familiar song!

As we approach the possible, in-fact probable, lifting of restrictions over the next few months, I urge you all to absorb all inspiration and then dare to dream……

What would I achieve……If I could?..........

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