The Wanderer

Denver National Chinese Martial Arts Championship 2018

Tournament banner

Written by John Andreula

Edited by Kodid Laraque-Two Elk

Saturday, September 29th 2018:

One of Colorado’s cultural and sporting best kept secrets took place at Gateway High School in Aurora Colorado. Various Kung Fu practitioners and martial artists, as well as their masters, teachers, and families, all converged in the high school gymnasium to participate in a martial arts competition. The event was called the Denver National Chinese Martial Arts Championship.

1st bout
Johnny Zeng, the day’s sparring winner, on the right, in his opening bout

Hosted by the Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute, the event is in its eighth iteration. It is an annual competition that brings schools and their students together to share their martial arts methods and teachings through friendly competition.

This year’s tournament was held in honor of Denver Shaolin Tai Chi’s recently passed Sifu, or teacher, Tony Timmer. Sifu Timmer had led his school in hosting the Championship for the five years prior. They produced and participated in the first two years of the tournament as well.

Since Sifu Tony’s passing, his senior students, John Burns, Paul Sahertian, and Christopher Franceschi, have all taken over the mantle of leading the school. They were recently promoted to rank of Sifu, or officially recognized teacher. This year they led in the planning and execution of the tournament.

This year’s Championship consisted of over seventy participants, all competing in a variety of categories. There was a wide range of Chinese martial arts styles. Taiji, Wushu, and other traditional styles were represented.

Categories ranged from empty hand and weapons performances, or forms {1}, and continuous sparring. Judges awarded points for quality of stance, intent, and power, to determine the best in each category.

yellow shirt girl
A young competitor with judges looking on

Each category would be broken up into divisions based on length of training and age of competitor. Novice was for first year practitioners, beginner had one to two years of experience, intermediate had two to four years, and advanced had five years or more. The majority of competitors were from the beginner and intermediate skill levels.

The festivities of the day kicked off with a parading in of the contestants to the applause from the spectators and the Shifus, or Masters, who were seated at the dais at the front side of the gym. {2}

Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu, from Boulder Colorado, then paraded in five Chinese lions to perform traditional Chinese Lion Dance. The Lions entered behind flag bearers to the beating of a large drum played by one of the school’s Shifus, Rama Kho. A lone flag bearer stopped in front of the dais and performed maneuvers with his nine foot flag.

Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu Lion Dance performers Jeffrey Li & Matt Bauer; photo from the 2018 Colorado Dragon Boat Festival courtesy of Kodid Laraque-Two Elk

The drum picked up intensity and was joined by gong and cymbals to commence the Lion Dance routine. The performers jumped, spun, and performed a variety of skills. The lions finished their performance set with the eating and scattering of the lettuce over the watching masters’ dais. The Lions scattering the lettuce is said to bring luck to those in attendance, as well as to the tournament itself.

Next came the Masters’ demonstrations. Two of the Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute Sifus, Paul Sahertian and Christopher Franceschi, opened the performances by demonstrating an empty hand form and a broad sword form, respectively.

Sifu James McIntire of Jade Tiger Kung Fu in Albuquerque, New Mexico performed another empty hand form, as did Shifu Stars and other local teachers. Master Christopher Clark of Rocky Mountain Movement, also in Denver, performed a Tai Chi sword form.

9 Province Kung Fu‘s Sifu Glenn Bullock, from Grand Junction, Colorado, performed rope dart. The host school’s Shifu Paul returned to perform a wonderful demo with his staff as well.

A teacher’s gesture of respect, or pai, to the dais before his empty hand demo

Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu‘s Shifu Rama Kho was joined by two senior students, and they performed a three person weapons set accompanied by live drumming, cymbals, and a gong. Shifu Kho wielded a staff while one student used a spear and the other a broad sword against him.

Master Ping Zhen Cheng, from Taichizen, followed. He performed a short but powerful empty hand demonstration. Master Ping was visiting from his two homes, Los Angeles and China. He and Sifu McIntire would return the next day to be two of four instructors holding traditional Chinese martial arts seminars. The seminars were held to give local practitioners and enthusiasts an opportunity to expand their knowledge of various martial arts’ disciplines, styles, and concepts.

Shifu Chon, from JunHong’s Kung Fu Club in Seattle Washington, finished the Masters’ demonstrations with a final powerful empty hand form, also to the accompaniment of the drumming, gong, and cymbals of Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu.

The instruments were taken out and team kung fu was performed by several of the schools. Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute instructor Paul yelled commands to a team that turned, set their stances {3}, and blocked, punched and kicked. Rocky Mountain Movement‘s team showed off beautiful satin performance uniforms in red and gold, pink, baby and navy blue, while they performed their group empty hand group set.

Rocky Mountain Movement‘s vibrant and colorful uniforms courtesy of their Instagram

The large gym had two rings of mats laid out in pink and blue, as well as a third ring set up without mats. Teams and spectators took their places in the bleachers on either ends of the gym, ready to compete and witness the performances and sparring matches.

The two rings with colored mats would host the quicker, fierce styles of Wushu and Traditional Kung Fu. The practitioners of “Internal” styles, such as Tai Chi, would perform their elegant, slower and more subtle techniques in the ring without the mats.

The teachers took their positions to judge the upcoming competitions. The waiting tournament participants prepared themselves mentally and physically for the competition about to get underway.

Some warmed up while others supported their team members who were beginning to compete. Serious, focused faces were intermixed with smiling and excited ones as people waited their turn, or rested between their multiple competition entries.

rocky mtn moves warm-up
Boys from Rocky Mountain Movement warming up with their staffs for traditional long weapons competition

On the two rings with mats the events began with Northern and Southern {4} Empty Hand forms contests. Those were succeeded by Long and Short Weapons forms. The final events were Continuous Sparring competitions.

The top three winners in each division were awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals, commendations from the Masters judges, and the accolades that accompanied their victories. There were many categories, so only multiple category winners will be mentioned for brevity.

In the Wushu {6} contests, Golda Sahertian won top honors in the intermediate division junior age group Empty Hand Wushu, Wushu Long Weapons, and Wushu Short Weapons. She also won the Traditional Empty Hand contest in her age and skill level.

Tom La took home top awards in beginner division teen age group Empty Hand Wushu, Wushu Long Weapons, and Wushu Short Weapons. Additionally, he would win the Traditional teen beginner Empty Hand form on the mats.

tai chi lady 2
Jennifer Lee’s winning Taiji Empty Hand performance

In the Internal, or Taiji, competitions Jennifer Lee won teen novice Yang Taiji Hand and Taiji Weapons. She would also win the Traditional Empty Hand competition for her age and skill level.

Johnny Zeng took first place in the adult intermediate Yang Taiji Hand contest. He would go on to tie his brother Joseph in the adult intermediate Taiji Weapons category. Later he would win the day’s adult Continuous Sparring round robin as well..

Shyam Meduri won the executive age group intermediate skill level Yang Taiji Hand and Taiji Weapons contests.

Presentation of adult Traditional Empty Hand awards

In terms of the diversity of the crowd and participants, as well as in the uniforms worn by the students representing a great variety of Chinese martial arts, the day was both colorful and exciting.

A multitude of children and adults from different ethnicities donned their schools’ unique performance garbs. A young blonde boy wearing a navy blue Kung Fu outfit could be heard yelling as he released energy performing his Empty Hand form. Other children wore shiny red and gold or black uniforms. Still others wore black or gray t-shirts and Kung Fu pants.

The adults wore more subdued, but equally unique uniforms of black, and a few in the baby blue of the hosting school’s uniforms. Each watched and awaited their own shots at glory and honor to be brought back to their respective schools.

Students from JunHong’s Kung Fu Club from Seattle brought some serious energy and discipline to their performances. The whole room seemed to stop, and attention was on them as they performed their sets. They impressed the crowd with their power and intensity. Their dark red shirts and gray pants made them easily recognizable. Their solid foot and stance work set them apart from the other schools.

JunHong female
A member of JunHong’s Kung Fu Club

JunHong’s Kung Fu Club came out of the performance segments of the day as the stars of the contest, but faced disappointment later as their entrant to the Continuous Sparring competition would be disqualified for too many hits to the face. Those type of strikes were against the tournament’s sparring rules.

As disappointing as the “DQ” was, their fighter definitively showed ability and aptitude through great ring presence and impressive high kicks. Despite his loss the crowd thoroughly enjoyed the display of his school’s devastating style.

Only three kids entered the youth continuous sparring competition, but they put on an exciting show for the crowd.

Two of the young sparring competitors with the third looking on

Excellent viewpoints could be found that afforded an awesome perspective of all the moments and the movements of the day. It was an intimate, yet inviting and inclusive, event to witness. Overall, the Championship was a wonderful spectacle of the martial arts community in Denver, Colorado, and the southwestern United States.

Congratulations were shared between opposing schools’ members and supporters after each competition. Sportsmanship was definitely in the building, and is alive and well within the Denver and southwestern US martial arts community. Even those who lost did so gracefully and respectfully. They represented their schools and teachers with honor.

There were many hidden moments for the keen eye of a martial arts enthusiast. Shifu Clarke and Master Ping could be seen performing pushy-hands, a one on one test of Tai Chi prowess, at the edge of the internal ring. Shifu Paul Sahertian was seen loosely performing his impressive spear style in the break between the empty hand and weapons competitions.

shifu paul play w staff 2
Shifu Paul Sahertian with his spear

Young students from each school laughed and smiled, performed acrobatic feats, and practiced their own smaller weapons in between competitions. Shifu Chon performed impressive warm-ups of deep splits and leg conditioning kicks against one of his students legs.

The day’s festivities wound down with one final exhibition match featuring Shifu Chon. Master Jerry Silva from National Martial Arts Academy arrived in time to referee the bout. His school was unable to participate due to having promotions at his school earlier in the day.

Final Exhibition Match

After the final exhibition, the mats were broken down and the crowds slowly dispersed. Many competitors wore their newly acquired medals. Everyone seemed to enjoy the unique and rare experience that the 8th Annual Denver National Chinese Martial Arts Championship had to offer.

Shifus John Burns and Chris Franceschi made themselves available for interviews after the tournament. They answered an array of questions about the event’s planning, execution, and it’s future. They both stressed the importance of keeping Sifu Tony Timmer’s vision for the school and the tournament alive.

When asked why the school decided to carry on the event in the absence of Sifu Timmer, Sifu John Burns replied that they did it because it was important to Sifu Tony Timmer. Sifu Timmer felt competition was important for the students.

Sifu Franceschi stated that part of Sifu Timmer’s vision was “to bring the Chinese martial arts community in Denver together as a more unified body.” He went on to say that continuing the school without the event would have been improper. “The tournament is also a big part of training for us and our students.”

denver shaolin man 2
Johnny Zeng of Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute performs traditonal Empty Hand

The gravity of Sifu Timmer’s passing cannot be overstated, but both teachers were clear in their vision of taking their school and the event into the future. The school and its teachers wanted to continue the tradition and Sifu Timmer’s legacy, and they are working diligently to establish themselves and the school in his absence.

Sifu Burns said that a tournament “is a testing ground to take you out of your comfort zone, and doing that really lets you learn a lot about yourself and your kung fu.” He continued, “With that in mind, we wanted to continue on in the same tradition. We want to provide a place for students to experience other styles and meet other practitioners. As well as improve themselves through healthy competition…We felt it was important to the region to bring the schools and styles in the area out together.”

As smoothly as the tournament flowed, it was not without its difficulties in the planning stages.

Before his passing Sifu Timmer only minimally shared the process required to plan and prepare the Denver National Chinese Martial Arts Championship with his students. They had no detailed documentation from previous years. Of the two interviews, the only mention of their involvement in previous events’ planning was by Sifu Franceschi. He recalled having “some idea” of setting up the venue from the past couple years.

Like much knowledge held by traditional martial art teachers, the details were only there in Sifu Timmer’s mind. They were all but lost in his passing. His successors had much work to do to execute such a stellar event.

The Denver Shaolin Tai Chi teachers had to comb through old receipts and recall past conversations with Sifu Timmer to put together the tournament in his absence. The biggest difficulty was finding and reconnecting with the various people in Sifu Timmer’s network. His successors were able to rebuild some of those contacts and, in the process, met an abundance of new teachers in the process as well.

Continuing the Championship meant a lot to Sifu John Burns and his fellow teachers. Sifu Burns had trouble finding the words. It was both a personal and emotional experience for him. Before planning and hosting the tournament he had no idea how much his master had poured into the school and the community.

The next generation of the Denver Chinese martial arts community

Next year the teachers of Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute have great plans to make the event bigger and better. They would like to set Denver up to be a hub for Chinese martial arts in the region.

In the future the teachers hope to introduce more divisions to the competition. They would like to add group forms, as well as more sparring and open forms contests.

Additionally, they plan to bring in more people from California, New Mexico, and the east coast, as well as attracting a wider audience. They are also hoping to bring in better advertising in the upcoming years. {6}

The Denver National Chinese Martial Arts Championship was a success in the eyes of all those who attended. When asked for a comment on the event Master Ping responded by stating, “Great job of everyone for working out a nice, friendly event.” He went on to commend the organizing team for putting on the Championship in such a short time. He also noted that he would like to see the variety of styles expand in the future.

It is impossible to comprehend the difficult emotions involved in a school losing its master and lineage carrier, but the Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute will go on. They will continue to host this beautiful cultural event. They will continue to put on the Denver National Chinese Martial Arts Championship in honor of Sifu Tony Timmer far into the future.

sifu timmer
The late Sifu Timmer instructing a young student. Photo courtesy of Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute‘s facebook page.

{1}Forms are defined as choreographed sequences of movements which simulate sequences of attacks and defenses against one or more imaginary opponents.
{2}Sifu and Shifu will be used interchangeably throughout the course of the article due to different schools’ spelling and pronunciation of the Chinese word for teacher.
{3}Stances are defined as structural posture of the body forming the foundation of a fighter’s base. This includes foot position, weight distribution, body alignment, and more.
{4}Northern & Southern martial artists styles are defined by the regions in China where those particular forms trace their roots.
{5}Wu Shu is a contemporary performance based Chinese martial art.
{6}Advertisers interested in supporting the Denver National Chinese Martial Arts Championship next year are welcome to reach out to Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute. It’s a great way to show your business’s support of Chinese culture and martial arts in the Denver area and beyond.

I wrote this article from the perspective of a beginner level Kung Fu practitioner. The viewpoint is my own and does not reflect the viewpoint of any martial arts schools or teachers.

I was humbled to be invited to the tournament. Additionally, I am grateful for the access Shifu John Burns, Shifu Christopher Franceschi, Shifu Paul Sahertian, and all of Denver Shaolin Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute allowed me on the day of the event.

Whether you practice and study martial arts or you are just a casual fan of the culture, I highly recommend attending next year’s tournament. It was quite a blessing to see this hidden gem within our great state of Colorado.

rocky mtn bridge
A young student from Rocky Mountain Movement plays

If you enjoyed this article please check out more on: 5280Geek

And my other creative works: (on Instagram)@movingonupwards (on Twitter)


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