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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Elisa Au: Putting up a fight

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

World Cup champion Elisa Au works out at the International Karate Federation's University dojo in Mo'ili'ili. "You cannot b e afraid, said Au, a second-degree black belt fighter. "That's the most important thing."

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

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Elisa Au walks taller and fights stronger than what people might see in her 5-foot-6 frame.

It is in her unwavering gaze, her confident gait, her fluid striking movements backed by power and precision.

She's not someone you want to mess with.

In her first appearance at the World Karate Federation Women's Karate World Cup last month, Au took the gold medal in the open-weight division, sparring with women taller, bigger and stronger.

It was the first time an American woman won the gold medal in this sparring event, a defining win for the 21-year-old who used every bit of her size to outwit her opponents.

But despite all the medals in her 16 years of karate and the deserved praise for her inherent talent and learned skill, Au sees room for improvement.

"I'm surprised at how well I'm doing," said Au, who will be competing this week in Virginia for the chance to represent the United States at the World Championships in Spain in August. "But I feel pretty confident this year. I've trained really hard, harder than anybody else nationally. I just have to keep doing what I've been doing."

To call Au's life busy is an understatement.

She has already competed in three tournaments — with four more to go this year — medaling in every event she has participated in. At the Amateur Athletic Union National Karate Championship in Salt Lake City two weeks ago, Au won the prestigious title of women's grand champion in kumite (sparring). She also took home the gold in kumite in her weight division and four silvers.

The grand champion trophy is displayed at the International Karate Federation, where Au has been training in karate since she took up the sport at age 5.

"To win something that prestigious is definitely a confidence booster," said fellow national teammate George Kotaka, who has known Au for 17 years and trained her at IKF for the past five. "But it puts pressure on you, too, at the same time. You're expected to win or perform really well. But she handles pressure really well."

Au, of 'Alewa Heights, is not intimidated by the taller, stronger opponents in the open-weight division.

"You cannot be afraid," said Au, a second-degree black belt fighter. "That's the most important thing."

She uses her size — and speed — to her advantage.

"Her strength is in her speed and timing," Kotaka said. "She relies on that combination."

Competing against international athletes has challenged Au to be quicker, stronger and smarter — qualities that set good athletes apart from exceptional ones.

France has some of the smartest fighters, Au said, Japan the most technically refined.

"Her overall strength and technique have improved a lot," said Kotaka, whose family owns and operates IKF. "Technique can be the deciding factor in elite competitions. Judges and referees are looking for that."

Kumite requires quick decision-making skills. Often competitors don't have a chance to see their opponents fight and must rely on instinct while in the ring. That's where a solid foundation in training becomes important.

Au runs nearly every day, trains with weights at least twice a week and trains at the karate studio as often as possible.

"I still haven't reached top speed and overall performance yet," Au said. "I'm still young. I can still get better."

It may seem like karate has taken over Au's life: She chose to stay home for college to continue training at IKF, where she also teaches classes.

But Au never wanted the sport to define her — as much as it does.

At Punahou, Au took up gymnastics, track and paddling, just to try something new. But as she excelled in karate, she gave up the other sports to concentrate on refining her skills and preparing for competitions.

A civil engineering major at the University of Hawai'i, Au is interning at M&E Pacific Inc. this summer. But she juggles her time between the engineering firm and teaching classes at IKF.

"It has definitely taught me how to manage my time, to fit everything into a schedule" Au said. "I learned self-discipline, having to practice everyday and on my own."

She has become an inspiration in her own right. Young girls, just beginning karate, look up to her with adoration. Boys are scared of her. Even her grandpa, Tony DiBrogrozzio, admires her: The 78-year-old started taking karate lessons from IKF — from his granddaughter — about five years ago.

Every aspect of karate, from the demanding physical and mental intensity to the spirit of competition, has captured Au, who doesn't think she'll ever give up the sport.

"It's an adrenaline rush," she said. "If you work really hard, it pays off in the end. It's that satisfaction."


Ching falls in semis: Honolulu's Alex Ching reached the semifinals of the Junior Super National Tournament (12-year-old division) recently at Tualatin Hills Tennis Center in Beaverton, Ore.

Ching and partner Anson McCook, of Miami, had a first-round bye, then beat Michael Freeman and Spencer Nevin, 8-1. Ching and McCook lost, 8-1, in the semifinals.

In singles, Ching defeated Andrew Chan of Portland, 6-0, 6-0, in the first round, then lost to second-seeded Scott Morse, of Central Point, Ore., 6-4, 6-3. In the consolation bracket, Ching advanced to the quarterfinals where he was beaten by Aba Omodele-Lucien of Berkeley, Calif., 7-6, 6-4.