Real Life

Martial artist Andrea Anacan's fight for Olympic gold

The martial artist rev eals how she almost gave up her beloved sport before qualifying for Tokyo

By Hayley McLarin
Three years ago, Olympic hopeful Andrea Anacan's parents worried that their daughter was too focused on the sport she loved to look for love in a different form.
From the age of four, she had been totally committed to karate and was now competing at international competitions, but mum Mary Ann and dad Ellya wondered if it might be time for their daughter to find a partner, settle down and have some children.
"In my mid-twenties, if I wasn't going hard with karate, I'd be at work or at church," the petite 30-year-old from Auckland tells Woman's Day.
"I hadn't had a boyfriend since I was 21, so my parents were getting worried. My mum would say, 'I want grandkids,' and Dad sat me down for a serious talk, saying I'd be happier if I had a partner to share my successes with."
Andrea finds it ironic that after she met her boyfriend Matt Caitor and began questioning how much longer she could compete, her parents warned her to not be too hasty.
"Now Mum is like, 'Don't have a kid yet because you have to fulfil your dreams!'" laughs Andrea. "It's such a change in pace, but Matt coming into the picture has really changed things. He says he'll support me whatever my goals are."
Right now, that is competing at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Andrea will be the first person to ever represent New Zealand in karate, competing in the "kata" or choreographed discipline, rather than the combative fighting form, this Thursday.
The sport truly has been a life-long passion. Andrea took up karate when she was four, when Mary Ann gave her the choice between martial arts or ballet, secretly hoping she'd choose a tutu over a black belt.
"She was my eldest child and I'm a girly girl," admits Mary Ann, 53. "But she has never liked dresses. On her first birthday, I bought her a lace dress with a matching hat, socks and shoes. She wore it for about an hour, then she took it off. She blew the candle on her cake in her nappy and singlet!"
Kidnap risk The family was living in the Philippines, where kidnapping, pick-pockets and robbery were rife, so Andrea chose self-defence over dance for her own protection. She explains, "I attended a school that was barricaded by gates for safety and nobody was allowed to pick you up unless it was your guardian because of the risk of kidnapping. There were a lot of snatchers who would grab your bag or rip jewellery off you. It happened to my grandma."
When Andrea was 12, the Anacans moved to New Zealand in search of a safer life, and her younger brother Angelo and little sister Erika followed her into karate. Angelo eventually reached seventh in the world before he retired, while Erika is a former national champion.
All three siblings still teach karate to young people.
Andrea tells, "In academics, sport or art, Mum and Dad said to us, 'Whatever you do, you have to give your best.' We're very grateful to them. They've always supported me and my siblings."
Mary Ann adds, "We've told them that you have to enjoy what you're doing. There are going to be challenges, but when you've got over that challenge, it's a great feeling. Andrea's a high achiever. She sets a very high standard for herself."
However, Andrea confesses she contemplated retiring after the 2018 World Championships in Madrid. Placing seventh, the best-ever result for a Kiwi athlete, she figured she'd be leaving on a high.
However, her partner Matt encouraged her to strive for the Olympics, a quest that has seen her training for several hours a day while still working at the family's electronic repairs business – that is, when she's not stuck in managed isolation after an international competition.
Incredibly, until a few years ago, when she secured some assistance from Sports New Zealand, Andrea was fully funded by her family.
"Unlike some competitors, it's not my career," she explains. "I'm not a professional. My parents provide me with food, accommodation and the rest to sustain me. That's the sacrifice you make to qualify for the Olympics.
"My sensei has been talking to me about the World Champs in Dubai, but I don't think we can afford it – let's do one goal at a time. My aim is to go to the Olympics, give it my best and whatever the Lord provides, we'll take it."
Before the 1.5m-tall powerhouse left for Japan last Thursday, Mary Ann, Andrea and Erika had a pamper day with a massage, manicure and pedicure to try to ease the heightened stress the Anacans are all feeling.
Family friends wanted to organise a viewing party, but because Andrea competes between 1pm and 3pm on August 5, the family will instead watch at work – if Mary Ann can stop herself from pacing.
While she has every confidence in her daughter, she doesn't want to be disappointed. Mary Ann says, "Every time I remember she's going to the Olympics, I get a lump on my throat and my knees shake. As a mum, when my children's hearts are broken, mine gets broken."
Meanwhile, for Meanwhile, for Andrea, there will be a day when she gives up competing, but she will never give up her craft. "I'm not gonna quit karate as a whole – it's a part of me and I love everything that comes with it."
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