At the age of four, Andrea Anacan was given the choice of a karate lesson or a ballet class.
The little girl was so keen to try the martial art, the sensei made an exception for her, waiving the normal starting age of five.
Anacan, now 28, has no regrets she selected karate, even though she’s had her share of hurdles and pain to overcome since.
She’s now knocking on the door of Olympic selection, as karate makes its debut at the 2020 Tokyo games.
Anacan’s voice lights up when she talks about her sport. “It makes me feel good. It’s the discipline aspect that keeps me going – keeping my mind active and my body strong as well,” the Philippines-born Aucklander says.
The Anacan family immigrated to New Zealand when the now black belt was 12 years old.
“At the time in the Philippines there was a huge spike in kidnapping, so my parents decided to move, and we were led to New Zealand,” she says.
But in a new country, Anacan wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue in the sport.
“I had a bumpy ride when I arrived here because I had such a great relationship with my previous sensei. I told my parents I wanted to quit,” she says.
Anacan’s parents bargained with her that she try the dojo they’d found for her. If it didn’t work out, they said, at least she’d given it a go.
She listened to her parents, and has been with the Shotokan Shitoryi Karate Association ever since. Sensei Johnny Ling has been hugely influential in her career.
“I’ve been with Sensei since I was 14 so he knows my movement better than I do,” she says. “He’s very open. He has a dojo at his house and it’s always open when you arrive, ready to train.”
Anacan competes in the karate discipline of kata, the performance side of karate, as opposed to kumate, the fighting discipline.
“I used to do kumate but I never reached 5ft, so my height prevented me from going further.” Anacan is just 4ft 11in (1.5m) tall.
Her sensei told her that if she couldn’t reach her opponent, she would get injured.
So at 15, Anacan focused on kata – detailed patterns of movement – and hasn’t looked back.
She’s won a long string of national titles, but her best performance on the global stage came last year at the karate senior world championships in Madrid. She made the quarterfinals in kata, finishing seventh – the best-ever placing by a New Zealander at a world senior championship.
It was significant for Anacan, as she’d had major shoulder surgery in 2017 and had seriously considered retiring from the sport because of her injury.
“I kept dislocating my shoulder to the point where I was dislocating it in my sleep,” she says. “I’d be in a lot of pain, but I was able to relocate it.”
A few months down the track from her surgery, she met up with her Ling at his dojo with her arm in her sling.
When she entered, her teammates noticed she was shaking; at this point she realised she really missed karate and wanted to make a return.
Together Anacan and Ling mapped out a plan, re-entering competition at last year’s Oceania continental championships.
She decided that her performance at those championships would determine whether she would carry on competing. “I won, so I thought ‘I’ll just have to keep going’,” she says.
When karate makes its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Anacan wants to be there.
“Now my goal is to qualify, and then obviously I want to get an Olympic medal,” she says.
To qualify, Anacan will need to accumulate points from tournaments on the World Karate Federation calendar, with the aim of being the No. 1 Oceania woman across both kata and kumate. Every continental region is allowed to send one female and one male karateka (athlete).
Anacan is targeting the Oceania championships in Sydney in April and the Karate 1 (K1) premier league tournaments held throughout the world.
In the kata discipline, Anacan will perform a series of movements with the same intensity as if she were fighting. She does the Chatanyara Kushanku style of kata, performing different sequences depending on her opponent.
“You need to be strategic about what kata you do based on your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. We know if I’m up against a really strong girl, I’ll pick a more athletic kata to try and beat her,” she says.
Kata athletes are given a score determined by judges which is broken down into 30 percent athletic and 70 percent technical components.
Anacan trains five days a week, fitting it in around the work she does in her family’s electrical repair business, Teletech.
Her training is a combination of strength and cardiovascular work, as well as karate technique. “We rehearse our movements for hours, but no day is the same. Our training is very individualized depending on what Sensei thinks we need,” she says.
Now that karate has full Olympic status, Anacan says there’s huge excitement in the global karate community.
“We’ve dreamed about being in the Olympics for a long time, so it means a lot to the community. It also brings pressure on the athletes involved because a lot of people dream of being at the Olympics and they want to be there,” she says.
“I think as a sporty kid, I always wanted to go to the Olympics, so for me to now have the potential to do so is pretty cool.”
Alongside training and competing in karate, Anacan teaches young karate students, which has helped her immensely as a person and an athlete.
“I would like to think I will never retire from karate,” she says. “If I can’t do it physically, I’ll still have my brain and my knowledge to pass on.”