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‘ Striving to be a winner ’

By Maureen de Jager

I’ve of ten heard it said that the SA Shotokan Karate Academy kanji ( the Japanese character in the SASKA logo) translates as ‘Striving to be a winner’. But what does this actually mean? What are the criter ia that define one as a winner – or as a loser, for that matter?

Recently, t hese question were raised for me by an unlikely encounter with a gutsy performance artist, Anthea Moys . Moys joined East Cape Shotokan - Ryu ’s Grahamstown dojo as a compl ete beginner in April this year; and in July she took on six of our toughest male karateka, challenging them to a very public kata and kumite showdown . With a mere three months’ training (and a n Eighth K yu / yellow belt grading) behind her, Moys would be hopelessly ou tmatched by her First Kyu, Shodan and Nidan competitors . From the start, s he was all but destined to lose.

Y et, for Moys, losing was precisely the point – and the central idea in an ambitious performa nce art project conceptualised for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Moys holds the coveted title of 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art. Being a performance artist, she uses her body as her p rimary means of expression, making artistic statements by orchestr ating scenarios and events that defy audience - members t o rethink their preconceptions. So when Moys was given the opportunity to create something unique for the Festival, her artistic vision was to ‘take on ’ the host city in a spectacular all - out challenge.

Fuelled by the belief th at the best way to learn about a place is to immerse oneself in its games, Moys joined six local sports teams and cultural groups , with the ultimate aim of pitting herself against them. On all fronts s he came in as a total novice, giving herself a deadline of three months to learn the necessary skills from her eventual competitors. The culmination: ‘Anthea Moys vs. The City of Grahamstown’ , a series of six dramatic contests for Festival audiences . In the space of a week , she single - handedly took up arms against a battle re - enactment group; stepped it up in a ballroom dancing extravaganza ; tested her singing voice in a choral competition ; made moves against the univer sity chess team; kicked ball against a local football club; and donned her mi tts against ECSR Karate.

Predictably, she lost – in everything. In battle, she found herself outnumbered by the enemy, shakily playing the bagpipes as they rounded her up. In ballroom, too many missteps saw her hastily banished from the dance floor . In ch oir , she was wholly out - sung b y two resounding choral groups . In chess, her fate w as quickly sealed by checkmate. In soccer, she failed to score a single goal . In karate, her Heian Shodan and Nidan kata were no match for the brown and black belts’ Bassai- d ai and Empi; and her limited kumite experience left her wounded, winded and defeated, with a total of 2 hard - earned points to ECSR Karate ’s 40.

What made these defeats seem particularly brutal is the fact that Moys had been such a dedicated pupil. She had trained exceedingly hard in the months leading up to her performance: carefully dividing her time between battle, ballroom, choir, chess, soccer and karate; and practicing daily to a point of near exhaustion . As a karateka h er standard improved dramatically – so much so that she sailed through her Eighth Kyu grading. For a b eginner she was incredibly good. In fact, h ad the challenge been ‘Anthea Moys vs. the yellow belts of ECSR Karate’ she would have had victory well within her reach . But Moys had no interest in testing herself against fellow beginners. She wanted impossible odds.

In the run - up to her performance I often heard people ask: ‘What’s the point?’ Indeed I pondered this myself on occasion. Why would Moys deliberate ly se t herself up for public failure ? What could she possibly gain? I doubted the merits of losing in such a spectacular fashion – and I questioned the intentions of those who would buy tickets to watch . I worried that it bordered on the farcical. But som ething about Moys’s attitude – about the seriousness with which she embraced her karate training – compelled me to keep an open mind.

A ll I can say is that my doubts were assuaged completely when the day of our karate contest arrived, and I saw our rising star in action against the brown and black bel ts of ECSR . This was a genuine challenge , undertaken most sincerely by a n earnest and devoted karateka . Moys gave it her all. And despite the points rapidly stacking up against her, she radiated triumph , carrying herself for all the world like a champion . She kept her resolve and focus through several rounds of nail - biting kumite – at one point losing her breath when her black - belt opponent landed a solid gyaku - zuki (reverse punch) , but never losing her ne rve , her composure or her positive spirit.

The effect was utterly captivating; the support from the audience electrifying. Spectators who had never even met Moys offered vocal encouragement , cheering her on when it looked like she might score and waiting in silent anticipation as she recovered from her injury . Notwithstanding the title of her performance – ‘ A nthea Moys versus The City of Grahamstown ’ – it s eemed to me that T he City had come out in full support . Even the ‘ opposition ’ recognised and honoure d her bravery, symbolically giving her the victory when, at the end, one of the ECSR karateka presented Moys with his medal on behalf of his team .

So , t echnically, Moys lost the contest, but she managed to galvanise a c ity. W hy the overwhelming support for a ‘loser’? One possible reason is that we can all appreciate Moys’s fighting spirit despite her defeats . In resolving to take on six formidable fighters , s he demonstrated that the biggest obstacle is karate (as in life , perh aps ) is not the size, speed or skill of one’ s opponent but one’s self - imposed limitations – the restrictive preconceptions that dictate what one can and cannot do.

In this regard, Moys also got me thinking about the difference between ‘ being a winner ’ and ‘ striving to be a winner ’ (as in the SASKA kanji) . ‘Being a winner’ suggests a particular state of accomplishment, vindicated by titles, medals , trophies , a place on the podium. But ‘striving to be a winner’ suggests something else entirely: an enduring f ighting spirit ; a Moys - like attitude of mind . For many of us, t he prospect of actually ‘ b eing a winner ’ remains sadly out of reach , despite our sincerest efforts . But ‘striving to be a winner’ is a possibility open to everyone. And while ‘being a winner’ is certainly commendable, it is also often short - lived: lasting just until someone better , faster or stronger comes along. But the rewards that follow from ‘striving to be a winner’ can sustain one for much, much longer – perhaps even for a lifetime .

Jus t ask Anthea Moys.