Meet Esther Kim, the Clark Kent of martial arts

Albert Facultad/AF Image

Esther Kim has won four junior national titles and two women's titles in the sport of kendo.

When she's not wielding a sword or wearing a helmet and armor, Esther Kim is a bit like Clark Kent.

She's described as quiet and even shy by her longtime kendo coach, Jonathan Chinen. Yet when Kim steps on a kendo court, she changes. Suddenly, she's aggressive and fearless.

"She turns on that switch and she's a totally different person," says Chinen.

At 21, Kim already has won two national women's championships in kendo, the Japanese martial art in which combatants duel like samurai using bamboo swords. Kim has been on two U.S. national teams at the world championships and won four junior national titles before her first women's championship at age 16 in 2014. Now a senior cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Kim is a force in any tournament she enters.

She knows she's not always the fastest, the strongest, or even most experienced in every match, yet she always believes she can win.

"I know that if I have a goal, I'm going to reach that goal," Kim says. "Having that mindset, I know some people are scared before they enter the court. They go in and are like, 'Oh, my god, this person is nationally ranked,' or 'Oh, my god, what do I do?' I'm more of the type to just go in, and they're also a person. I don't care where they stand. ... It's my strong suit."

Chinen and his father, Katsuo Chinen, have coached Kim since she was 12 or 13 at the Gedatsu USA Kendo Dojo near her home in Downey, California, just south of Los Angeles. Jonathan Chinen says Kim's dedication in practice always has set her apart. She's always put in more effort and intensity than those around her.

"She takes it very seriously," he says.

Chinen says Kim's strength has been her ability to react and attack. She's also become quicker. "Her best skills are what we call, it's a counter move," he says. "Anything her opponent has practiced, she's countering her opponent's attacks back at them."

That mental duel, says Kim, is one of the aspects she likes best about kendo. "I'm not super athletic, so I try to use my advantages I have," says Kim, who is studying in Japan for a semester. "I like to think ahead. So if I do this, how would they react, and what would I do if they react this way? If they don't react this way, what would I do then? I like to play around with that and unfold it."

Albert Facultad/AF Image

Esther Kim competing at the 2017 world championships.

Kim was introduced to kendo when she was 10 when her older brother returned to the sport in high school. At the time, her other brother also took it up. "My mom thought it would be cool if all of us did it together," she says.

Kim's heritage is Korean -- she grew up in Southern California speaking both English and Korean -- and her mother had seen the sport in South Korea (a variation called kumdo) and wanted her children to try it.

Kim loved it immediately. She loved its discipline and enjoyed learning something new, meeting new people and what the martial art -- and the culture surrounding it -- did for her. She sees it as more art than sport. She has achieved the rank of 2 Dan (similar to second-degree black belt). The sport's name means "the way of the sword" and is modeled after the bushido (honor) codes of the samurai.

"You learn how to respect other people and at the same time learn how to get respect from other people," she says. "And the fact you can do it at any age, at any time. It builds up your concentration."

And, once she won her first junior national title, she wanted more. "After I had a taste of what it feels like to win, after that I was like, 'OK, just get at it, get at it.'"

A women's kendo match lasts four minutes and takes place on a marked court in front of three judges. Those judges award points for a correct strike on an opponent's wrist, head or torso with the shinai, a bamboo sword. A match is won by the first competitor to get two (of a possible three) points, or whoever has the lead when time expires.

Scoring a point is difficult. Opponents test each other, clashing swords and feinting. When they attack, they must show spirit by shouting out their intended target and stomping their forward foot in coordination with the strike. That shows the judges it's a planned strike with momentum.

"You're basically focusing all your energy on one attack," says Kim, who represents the Southern California Kendo Federation in regional and national tournaments.

To be fit, she focuses her training on her legs and core. She works out six days a week, with three days for cardio (long runs and sprints) and three days for weight training.

There's no kendo club at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, so she carves time out from her academic and duty schedule -- about an hour to 90 minutes a day -- to watch kendo videos and practice moves on her own with the swords she's brought from home.

After graduation this academic year, Kim isn't sure what role she'll have in the Air Force. She's interested in both logistics and languages (she speaks Japanese and Chinese as well as Korean). Her military commitment is for five years, but she's interested in making it a career because she says "the military lifestyle" fits her personality. No matter where she's eventually stationed, she says she'll continue practicing kendo.

"Even if I don't continue actively competing, I think it's something that can calm my mind, help me forget about any of the problems I may be dealing with," she says.

When Kim won her first national championship at 16, she said it was a surprise because she was the youngest competitor. When she successfully defended the title last year, it was a challenge because of her time away from regular practice while at the academy. But she's come to realize the benefits of kendo are with her wherever she goes and whatever she does.

"I may not be the best in academics or I may not be the best at running," she says, "but I know that one thing I have special to me is kendo. That gives me confidence within my life, and I think at the same time, it really helps me build the self-discipline within myself that I need in life, to know myself, to reflect upon myself. Those tools, I'm super grateful kendo was able to give to me."

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