In 2003 she came second in the Middleweight division and first in 2004, but missed out on the Champion of Champions. However, in 2005, Karen came away with Middleweight, Openweight and Champion of Champions titles. In the lead-up to the final fight, Karen came up against tough fighters. "Seeing as I lost my first fights in the fight-off against the Lightweight Champion and Middleweight, that was a bit of a setback. But then I got a second chance because I'd won the Open-weight as well."
Fighting against all the other styles at NAS was initially a challenge for Karen. "It can be tough when you come up against a kung fu person or someone from another style who fights a little differently to you," she explains. Karen's solution to being unfamiliar with her opponent's art is simple: "I try not to focus too much on what they're doing — for example, if they try to put you off with a different guard — and just make sure I continue to fight the way I fight. I also like to watch people fighting in earlier rounds so I know what to expect."
Karen has been studying karate for a couple of months short of a decade. She is now Shodan and also a corporate tax consultant at one of the big four accounting firms. Karen also finds time for running, swimming and cycling to condition herself for mini-triathlons. "I also try to do some yoga and things like Pilates for stretching." Karen trains about four times a week in Seishin Zenryoku Karate at Redlands Martial Arts Academy in Cleveland, about 40 minutes out of Brisbane. In the lead-up to competition, she does three mornings a week on the bag at home. "Other mornings I do running, riding or swimming," Karen says. "So I generally do something every single day."
As a fighter, Karen's methods are quite traditional — well-executed, linear techniques — and stem directly from the Shotokan base of her style, Seishin Zenryoku. "Our instructor, Sensei Shane Degney, trained under Shihan Michael Ireland from Dubbo. We do all the Shotokan kata and Shotokan basics, but we've also borrowed some techniques from other styles in terms of our self-defence." If Karen's opponent shows a preference for leg-attacks, she likes to defend and counter-attack, while if she notices that her opponent prefers to use their hands, she will go in to score. "In that sense, I suppose I like to fight straight-line, but if someone's using their legs, then I might use sabaki [body-shifting] and move around them," Karen pauses. "We do train for that, but it's a little more difficult to execute."
Shotokan karate is often regarded as having more of an emphasis on power and length and not enough on speed of execution. Many would argue that Shotokan-based styles are not as efficient on the mat as others that focus more on speed. So how was Karen so successful? "We did a lot of competitions before we joined the NAS," she explains. Before Karen's club joined NAS in 2002, they had a long history of competing in other tournaments. "I guess [they were] a lot harder in terms of contact. We did some continuous sparring and point-sparring. They're a lot more strict on contact in the NAS and the bouts are all really fast." In order to account for these differences, Seishin Zenryoku held modified, non-contact training sessions to adapt their style.
Karen also feels that the special attention Seishin Zenryoku Karate paid to drilling simple, effective techniques contributed greatly to her win. "I score a lot with the jabs, the reverse-punches — I guess that's a very Shotokan-style technique — just that directness, getting in the right direction and using that one technique." Karen's favourite moves are therefore the linear ones. "Gyaku-tsuki [reverse-punch]; I think that's what I score with the most. I really love doing the mae-geri [front-kick], but often it's a bit difficult to do with the control," she says. "At NAS, you have to be really careful with your control. If you go too hard, you'll be warned and may lose points."
Learning to negotiate and overcome so many other styles at NAS was bound to have an influence on Karen's style. She has certainly noticed some changes: "I think I've probably developed more control and speed because of fighting at NAS," she says.
Many fighters have to adapt to NAS's strict requirements on contact. Karen has had the full range of karate tournament experience and has even participated in Koshiki fighting, which involves body-armour and helmets. "Koshiki means 'hard-contact' fighting," Karen says. "But it's pretty much full-contact in terms of the target areas, which are the chest-protector and the head-protector." Karen made a trip to New Zealand to fight in one of these tournaments in September last year. "I won there and I won the State Titles in Queensland as well. I missed out on the Nationals, but hopefully I'm going to the World Titles, in Canada, in May."
With her focus on full-contact fighting, Karen is working out how to train for non-contact at the same time. "We do full-contact training and then we do non-contact training. Depending on which tournament I'm training for, like training for NAS nationals, I stopped training full-contact."
And what does Karen think about the new NAS Extreme rules, encouraging takedowns, head-kicks and aerial kicks? "I would definitely start training them more and try to use them, if that didn't work I would keep with my usual strategy. I think something I could definitely use would be the head-kicks," she decides. "We do a lot of that in the full-contact fighting and I'd just have to make sure there was no contact there. We do a lot of takedowns in class. It's not something I've used in competitions, but it's something we use a lot in class, so I guess we could adapt it to competition."
As for the spinning and jumping kicks, Karen isn't so keen. "It's probably something I'd need to work on a lot," she admits. "We do turning kicks and spinning hook-kicks in class, but I feel like they're a bit slow and more readable in competition, as compared to my more direct, straight-line techniques." From Karen's experience in other tournaments where extra points were awarded for more difficult techniques, she doesn't believe that it will afford any advantage to NAS fighters who more readily train those aspects of their art. "I think if I'm ready for someone to be throwing something like that then it shouldn't be too much of a disadvantage for me."
Karen's NAS title belt has pride of place in her lounge room, right on top of the television; the cup is above the fireplace. "It's probably my biggest achievement, to date, I'd say, in competition and probably in anything I've done," Karen proclaims. "[NAS is] very well run and has a very good tournament structure. In terms of the competition, it's very strong and it's great to be able to compete against people from other states and other styles."
Another aspect of NAS that stands out for Karen is its large proportion of female competitors. "Sometimes I'll turn up to a tournament and it will just be me and two other girls," Karen says. "So it's great that NAS has such a huge following. I think I had 11 fights on the Saturday to win, and that's pretty huge." Female fighters often encounter empty weight divisions or insufficient competitors. This doesn't only frustrate the efforts of many women to compete, but it can also dull the thrill of winning. "It's great to see that there are so many girls out there doing it," enthuses Karen. "It gives you a greater sense of achievement when you have to get through that many girls and they're all really very good." Knowing that NAS provides an arena for women to compete is a strong incentive for many women to involve themselves in martial arts.
Any woman wishing to challenge Karen in this year's NAS should heed her advice: "It's something you really need to work towards all year and train for all year. In general training, in class, fight like you would in competition, all the time. Don't let anyone score on you. Try to pick the points off other people. Don't be lazy throughout the year and just train hard when the competition's coming up. If it's something you're thinking about all the time, then it's going to become more natural and you're going to become better at it all the time — then it's going to pay off."