Gymnastics and karate. Karate and gymnastics.
On the surface the two sports seem to be undeniable opposites. Women’s gymnastics is a sport pure in elegant movements, graceful dance abilities, and feminine presentation. Karate is filled with intimidating kicks and punches, and exudes a tough reputation. Beneath the stereotyped façades, the two sports are more similar than fans would think. There is incredible power and strength behind every tumbling pass and every attack. Hitting tricks and sticking dismounts call for great focus and even greater control. When skills from the two sports are paired together within the repertoire of one athlete, the result can be lethal.
No one is better aware of the deadly combination than Gopher gymnast Kendra Elm, who is an elite athlete in both sport worlds. Her gymnastics record speaks for itself. Elm has been known as a top performer on the team ever since she joined the Golden Gopher roster. This season alone, Elm has competed on vault, bars, and floor in every meet and is averaging 9.63 on vault, 9.775 on bars, and 9.73 on floor. In three meets of beam action, Elm posts an average of 9.733. She has competed in the all around competition three times, taking the title twice and earning a personal-best score of 39.225.
Elm’s history in Korean Martial Arts is a lesser-known expertise. She started her journey taking classes at the National Karate School the summer before her senior year of high school on a spur of the moment decision prompted by a friend.
“I was playing around with one of my friends who was in karate and decided I wanted to try it,” she said. “I really liked it so I just kind of kept going with it.”
As there are many forms of karate, Elm describes her style as “hard-hitting karate” instead of the more fluid Tai Chi. Knowledge of basic kicks, punches, and self-defense moves is necessary to progress through each belt level. As the rankings get higher, the forms, or choreographed fights, become more complicated. Over the past four years, Elm has worked her way up through the ranks, learning various tricks and maneuvers including her personal favorite, a kick from a 360-degree spin (also called a tornado kick), and participating in the occasional tournament competition, to earn a top honor of a black belt.
Not only has Elm enjoyed being involved in the two activities, she also has discovered a mutually beneficial relationship between the two. While the flexibility she has picked up from her many years in gymnastics makes the karate movements easier, karate has had a greater effect on her gymnastics performances. Karate teaches focus.
“[Karate] teaches you focus for balance and for hitting specific targets. I think that was really helpful for gymnastics. Just learning to stay focused on what I’m working on, what I’m doing, or where I’m looking.”
Karate also taught her how to step out of her comfort zone.
“You are supposed to yell when you hit. That was probably the hardest for me because we don’t talk when we do anything in gymnastics. It was kind of weird for me to start doing that. It took me probably almost three years to be fully able to do it. I had the hardest time learning to yell.”
In addition to being a student at the National Karate School, Elm helps out at the school whenever she is able, although a tough traveling schedule during gymnastics season sometimes makes it harder to do so. There may be even more left for her on the mats as well. Since karate is popular among all ages, she has the ability to continue as long as she would like.
“There are young kids who start when they are three or four years old, and there are adults who have been there for twenty to thirty years. It is one of those things that I always can have and it is something I can always come back to.”