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St. Albert kendo club members aim for world championships

Kendo, which means “the way of the sword,” is a Japanese martial art that was originally developed as a safe form of sword training for samurai. It was the sport’s connection to Japanese culture that drew Nadia Leenders to the sport when she was 16 years old, she said. 
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Nadia Leenders, 16, won the coveted Fighting Spirit Award at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre tournament in Toronto, one of the largest tournaments in North America.

A new St. Albert kendo club is gaining attention on the national and international stages, with two of its members in line to compete at the 2024 World Kendo Championships in Italy.

Kendo, which means “the way of the sword,” is a Japanese martial art that was originally developed as a safe form of sword training for samurai. It was the sport’s connection to Japanese culture that drew Nadia Leenders to the sport when she was 16 years old, she said. 

“I’m a shy person and I didn’t have a lot of self confidence as a teenager, but it helped me become more comfortable with myself,” Leenders said.

Leenders has been doing kendo for 10 years, and joined the St. Albert Sturgeon Kendo Club after it opened a year ago. She said kendo, which requires determination and dedication to the craft, has taught her strength in spirit and overcoming adversity.

“When conflict comes up either in work or school, having that ability and knowing that I can face conflict and stand up for myself is a skill that I’m able to hone and develop through kendo.” 

Earlier this month, Leenders won the coveted Fighting Spirit Award at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre tournament in Toronto, one of the largest tournaments in North America. The competition draws around 200 competitors from across Canada and the United States.

The Fighting Spirit award is given to the kendoist who stood up to overwhelming odds and met them, explained instructor Jason Stelck. Nadia has “beautiful technique” which stood out to organizers as she competed in team matches, he said. 

“For Nadia to be able to fight with them and show off her kendo says a lot for her ability, and her spirit,” Stelck said. 

Kendo requires a strong spirit, physical strength and mental attitude to avoid defeat – after all, the sport is simulating a fight to the death between samurai, he said. But winning isn’t the only objective. 

“It’s about going in, no matter the level of competition, and showing that you have the spirit to seek victory against whatever opposition there is. To me, that is the meaning of kendo.”

The kendo community is a smaller one in Canada, with nearly 60 dojos across the country registered with the Canadian Kendo Federation. When athletes stand out in tournaments, Canada’s national kendo team takes note. 

Head instructors in charge of candidate selection for Team Canada contacted Stelck to encourage members to apply to join. Leenders and kendoist Shion Miyashita are now two prospects for Canada's national team for the 2024 World Championships in Italy.

“I'm really excited because that means that what we're doing here is in the right direction,” Stelck said. 

“When you're here in Alberta, Calgary is quite dense in members, but the Edmonton area has never had those types of opportunities before.”

The next few years until the world championship will be dedicated to tournament training, which Stelck described as “gritty, sweaty hard work.”

“It's where the spirit of kendo is truly revealed, if not the technique. With them preparing for that, our training is going to have to get a lot heavier for the pair of them. Then they can build the spirit necessary to face whoever is in front of them, the best in the world.”

The number of kendo participants in Canada is smaller than other countries, especially compared to Japan, the sport’s country of origin. If she is selected to join the national team, Leenders said there’s a good chance she will already know her teammates. 

“I think that that changes the pressure a little bit; it makes it a little bit more personal,” she said. “I hope I’m ready for it when the time comes, if I get chosen.”