When I attended the 16th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, which showcased more than 130 entries from 15 countries, I was pleased to learn that the organizers had included three must-see martial arts-themed movies:
• The Assassin
— From Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, this highly anticipated movie could redefine the wu xia
• Deadman Inferno
— This Japanese flick pits Yakuza members against zombies.
• Winning Girl
— This is a wonderful dynamic documentary, one that’s perfectly timed considering last year’s defeat of UFC champ Ronda Rousey.
Directed by Kimberlee Bassford, Winning Girl
documents four years in the life of a 16-year-old, 125-pound wrestling
champion from Hawaii named Teshya Alo. As such, it includes plenty of training, trials and tribulations.
The film opens with a mention that since she was 6, Teshya has won 21 national championships in wrestling and garnered 30 titles in judo and jiu-jitsu
. That’s impressive — but not as impressive as the maturity the teenager shows.
“When I went to my first national wrestling tournament and lost, I was very sad,” Teshya said. “I remember watching the girl who won. She was like a celebrity. I used my loss as motivation, went home to Hawaii, trained really hard, and two years later, I beat the same girl to win the nationals.
“I realized that by working hard and beating that girl who was older and stronger than me, that if I keep working hard, one day I could make it to the Olympics
. My dream is to win the Olympics in judo and wrestling.”
Teshya knows it won’t be easy. “To get to the Olympics, I have to win the world championships in both sports and beat adults who are much older and more experienced than me,” she said. “So right now, my goal is to represent Hawaii and the United States at the world championships and win.”
Throughout her childhood and early teens, Teshya built a solid reputation as a force to be reckoned with — by defeating boys, girls and women twice her age. Part of the film is the coming-of-age story that takes place from age 12 to 16, which is when we get to witness the challenges and struggles she had to face to advance in two combat sports that people her size and gender rarely participate in, much less excel in.
As Teshya moved up the judo ranks, her signature technique — which she still uses at tournaments — was tomoe nage,
the circle throw. But after she won the judo nationals at 16 and represented America at the World Judo Championships, she faced an opponent who constantly countered her tomoe nage attempts. Teshya ended up losing. “I was confused and became paralyzed — [I] didn't understand the concept of strategy,” she said. “But I'll learn from the loss.”
It reminded me of the UFC 193
, which saw Black Belt
Hall of Famer Ronda Rousey
lose to Holly Holm. Rousey attempted to use her trademark armbar
but was repeatedly foiled by Holm, who was trained by Black Belt
Hall of Famer Greg Jackson. When the armbar failed, Rousey either forgot or abandoned her strategy. In its place, she seemed to fight with anger. Meanwhile, Holm appeared to remain calm.
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When Teshya, then 15, represented America at the World Wrestling Cadet Championships, she lost her opening match against the former world champion, but she battled on. After a quick succession of follow-up matches, she won the bronze.
A year later, she bagged the gold and became the world champion.
Ultimately, Winning Girl
is about empowering young women. It shines a spotlight on the specific challenges associated with Teshya’s quest to become a champion wrestler and judoka
while living in Hawaii, while learning about her heritage and while being forced to raise funds to attend the big tournaments.
The refreshing part is that throughout the film, we see that for Teshya Alo, the keys to success in competition are belief in oneself and the support of one’s parents, who ideally use positive reinforcement to power the athlete’s drive to win.
(Photos Courtesy of Making Waves Films LLC)
Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.