Park City Karate hosts 10th annual Intermountain Championships, sends 11 to nationals | ParkRecord.com

Park City Karate hosts 10th annual Intermountain Championships, sends 11 to nationals

For karate practitioners around the Mountain West, the Ecker Hill Middle School gym was an important place to be on Saturday. The school's hardwood basketball courts were home to the 10th annual Intermountain Championships — the final national qualifying event of the season for Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada.

Standing on a podium at a regional tournament is the only way for a competitor to reach the U.S. National Championships and team trials, and now that karate is slated as a sport in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, a national team spot also comes with an outside shot at reaching the Olympic level.

On Saturday Park City Karate, which hosted the event, had four competitors who had already qualified for the elite level competition at the national tournament, but participated in Saturday's tournament as practice.

Kai Becket, a 21-year-old instructor at Park City Karate, along with his club member Tiana Clevenger, were both on the right track to make the national team on Saturday. Both had prequalified for nationals, and both won their kumite (fighting) competitions at the Intermountain Championships.

It will be Becket's third time traveling to nationals when he makes the trip next month.

"I'm still kind of new to it," he said. "I've been trying to figure out what weight division is best for me — where I should be fighting at — but right now I feel pretty good."

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He had defeated Sean Greene by a single point to win the men's elite kumite competition after scoring in the last two seconds of their match. It was a good sign for Becket, who had recently recovered from a double hamstring injury he suffered while competing in Oregon. He also finished second in kata, the display of traditional karate forms, behind his teammate, Eric Nelson.

If Becket or any of Park City's other competitors finish in the top six of their respective competitions at nationals, they will compete in the team trials, of which the top three of each group will be named to the national team and will travel to international competitions. Those that take third through sixth at team trials will be named to the development team and serve as stand-ins in case of illness or injury.

On Saturday, Clevenger faced and defeated Megan Cicchetti, who recently held a spot on the national team, in the women's elite kumite competition. Clevenger said the match would not help her standing, but was still good practice.

"I was a little nervous because I'm 17 and was fighting 18-34, which I do sometimes in smaller tournaments, but it's still nerve wracking because you're fighting people who have a lot more experience than you do," she said. "But I thought it went well. I did my best to stay calm and not freak out."

Clevenger's teammates Liam Neu and Eric Nelson will also compete in the elite kumite competition at nationals, and Park City Karate will take seven non-elite competitors to nationals, including Avery McJoint, Diego Izu, Ethan Neu, Izabella Morella, Nash Clevenger, Paulina Izu and Sarah Eichner.

A world-class visitor

Few understand the drive to reach the Olympic Games as much as Tom Scott, the U.S. national team's captain.

Scott had arrived in Park City the night before to teach a kumite seminar to some of the tournament's attendees, who ranged in age from 6 to 60.

On Saturday, Scott was just there to watch tournament, along with Brody Burns, director of operations for U.S.A. Karate.

Burns said the teenage athletes present would be hard pressed to reach the 2020 Tokyo Games.

"But 2024, these kids will be perfect for 2024," he said.

The idea of competing in the Olympics is still new for Burns and Scott. Karate wasn't approved as an Olympic sport until 2016, and for most of Scott's career, the sport's impending debut in Tokyo didn't seem likely.

"We have watched our sport try and make it for 30 years — I mean longer than I have been alive — we've been trying to get into the Olympics, and it just wasn't happening," Scott said. "So I was used to that."

Since its inclusion in the Games, Scott said his training plan hasn't changed much — until recently he was ranked No. 1 in the world, so training well wasn't an issue — but he has gotten access to the U.S. Olympic Committee's training resources, including guidance from sports psychologists, nutritionists, and access to new equipment.

"We got to know bone density, find out what my blood work and vitamin D levels were, and find any little thing," Scott said. "It was awesome."

Burns said for the U.S. to field someone of Scott's caliber now, at the advent of Olympic karate, was huge, and so is the pressure to succeed. Scott essentially carries the cumulative anticipation of America's karate community on his shoulders. But Scott said he still feels extremely lucky to have the opportunity to potentially compete in the Olympics while he is in his prime.

"I have seen great champions who deserve to be there too, and it's past their time," he said.

Doug Jepperson, owner of Park City Karate, said some of his athletes have the talent to make the Olympics in time, but there are certainly no shortcuts to getting there.

"Living here in Park City, athletic ability is, like, the least important thing, because everyone walks in the door with athletic ability," Jepperson said. "But are you going to get serious about the sport? Are you going to spend the next six years of your life with this as a priority? Then you still have to work on your school and do the things you have to do and manage your time."

Looking around the room as the youngest groups competed, Scott said enjoying the process was the most successful way of reaching the sport's upper echelon.

"I don't feel like I got super serious until when I was a teenager, yet I see 12-year-olds burn out after being national champions a couple times," he said. "So I still feel like at 28 I'm feeling fresh and just getting started."