Nicki Kennedy: Fourth time lucky NAS queen

Written by Boon Mark Souphanh

Throughout the history of competition, the bitter taste of defeat has proven too much for many an athlete to swallow. After three consecutive runners-up finishes in the annual National All Styles Champion of Champions finals, you could forgive Queensland’s Nicki Kennedy for thinking it perhaps wasn’t meant to be. Unperturbed, Kennedy decided to once again test her skills against Australia’s top martial artists at NAS in 2013 and finally broke through to claim the open-weight title she had long pursued — not to say that she wasn’t already a winner, having already bagged a whopping six consecutive NAS Black-belt middleweight titles. 

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Nicki Kennedy is all smiles after claiming the top NAS crown

Nicki, how did you get started in martial arts? What inspired you?

I started doing martial arts because my brother was doing it. He was younger than me, and I would go along to his classes and watch. It looked really fun, so I ended up begging my parents to let me do it too. After some convincing, they let me switch over from dancing to karate — I’ve been doing Kenshinkan karate for 18 years since.

Describe your progression through the karate ranks. Were you always a winner?

I started when I was seven years old, so I was very shy and quiet at the time. Karate really helped me break out of my shell and become a lot more outgoing. Also, as I progressed through the ranks, I think I became more determined and developed more of a fighter’s mentality, which has helped me a lot in life. I started training in 1996 and I was graded to Black-belt in 2000. That was a really special day, I was so happy. Currently, I’m a 3rd Dan.   

What is it like at Kenshinkan International Karate (Qld) with Kancho James Casey? How would you describe your sensei’s approach to training?

It’s really great and I love training there. Kancho has been my head instructor since I was seven. I’m 25 now so he’s really overseen my growth as a martial artist for most of my life — we have a great bond. His approach to karate training is very disciplined and he makes us work very hard. He also leads by example, as his own karate skills are so strong. That being said, he’s always keen on a laugh and everyone in the club gets along really well — we just train hard too!    

You train with many top fighters including Pania Casey Williams, a past NAS Champion of Champions. How much has her success motivated you? What is your training relationship like?

We have a really close training relationship. Since I was a little girl, I’ve always looked up to her. Working up through the junior ranks in karate and NAS all the way to the adult level, I always watched her and tried to learn as much as I could from her. Not only does she inspire me with her performances in competition, but she’s also there to coach me whenever I need. I feel we really feed off each other’s energy in the gym.

Kenshinkan International Karate seems to be producing some of the top competition fighters in the country. What do you think are the main contributing factors to this?

I think it comes down to the dedication of everyone there. That being said, they’re dedicated because they love what they do, they just love karate. Everyone is helping each other in training and we also tend to work extra hard leading up to tournaments. I think these are what sets Kenshinkan apart.

You finally broke through for your first Champion of Champions title in 2013 after three consecutive runner-up finishes. How much did the loss in the final the year before motivate you and what were the main differences in your preparation and game plan? 

There were probably a few differences going into the most recent NAS. You always learn a lot from when you lose. In the case of Champion of Champions, whenever I lost I wanted to go back and analyse where I thought I could improve. Kancho James Casey and I really looked at my previous matches from NAS and noticed a few weaknesses that I needed to fix up. So, going into 2013, we had formulated a solid game plan to tackle the fights at NAS. I owe a lot to Kancho for helping in this regard. At the same time, part of my strategy was to not get too caught up in my opponents and focus on what I was doing. 

What was it like fighting against Pania in the final this year? I hear it was quite an epic battle. 

The fact that Pania and I are so close really added to the experience. I’d been competing in NAS since Pee-wees [under-sevens] and I’d always watched the Champion of Champions fights hoping that I’d be able to fight and win it myself one day. In this fight, I was super nervous but excited at the same time. It was all just a blur, but it definitely was a fierce and relentless fight — we both really wanted it. I was determined to win the title and came out on top with the final score 11–13. I got really emotional after the fight — I was just really happy.

What did your weekly training schedule entail leading up to the competition? Does your training structure change closer to big tournaments? 

My training routine of late has been rather difficult as I have begun work as a full-time paralegal, as well as continuing to study law at university. Both these things are very time consuming, so I can only get to training two or three times a week. To go with this, I do a lot of training by myself at home to try and make up for the time I miss out at the school. The training at Kenshinkan is varied — on any one day a training session can consist of a warm-up followed by sparring, bag work, cardio training, a lot of basics and traditional karate technique, and kata — there really is a big mix of things. We do a lot of kata as we are very traditional in our approach — there’s a balance between sparring and kata training. I feel kata really helps my balance and switching stances, which are integral when fighting. The strength and conditioning stuff we do involves a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, squats, sprints and circuit training.  

How would you describe your own personal style of fighting? What are your main strengths?

The Kenshinkan style is based on Kyokushin karate, so naturally it is very combative. Physically, I am taller than most of the others I compete against, so I try and use my reach and height to my advantage. My favourite attack would probably be the roundhouse-kick — mawashi-geri. I think that’s my strongest technique.   

Without giving too much away, do you have any tips for new competitors in NAS and how they can succeed?

It’s pretty simple I think — you just have to stay focused and train hard. You have to stay determined. Another thing I’d suggest is to try and learn as much as you can from your losses. Losses give you a lot of insight into becoming a better fighter because they show you perhaps where you’re lacking.  

What do you hope to achieve in martial arts in the future?

Even though I love coaching the students from the clubs at tournaments, I don’t think I’d pursue a career as an instructor. I just want to keep training and enjoying it. I love competition and I hope to keep doing it at a high level for many years to come — hopefully I can keep winning as well. 

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