Australia’s Taijiquan Champion Krista Brennan

Australia’s amazing Krista Brennan began her wushu journey over a decade ago, and while she has won many medals and awards, she considers her learning and adventures in taijiquan far from over. From winning her first international medal in Anhui, China, as part of the Australian team’s group performance at the 6th World Kungfu (Traditional Wushu) Championships, to being crowned Overall Women’s Champion at the Tai Chi Association of Australia annual competition in 2018, Krista’s approach is to keep learning and growing. She appreciates the sport of wushu for widening her life experience in a myriad of ways.While (wushu) travel has broadened her worldview, she says her greatest prize is that of joining an incredible taiji community in Australia and around the world, sharing a unique and special connection with wushu-kungfu friends.



An Inauspicious Start


A true and dedicated athlete, Krista’s story is indeed an inspiring one. But early on, inspiration was sometimes in short supply. Krista’s first experience with martial arts, she remembers, was not good. “I was 6 years old and had more energy than my parents knew what to do with, so they enrolled me in whatever martial arts class they could find, which happened to be Judo. Unfortunately, as the smallest person in the room by far, all of the other kids chose me first when it came time to practise throwing. The few memories I have of the class are all being thrown over a teenager’s shoulders and onto the ground. I entered a competition, and recall being sat on by a larger girl and crying for a full five minutes. After a few months of classes, I got into the car with my Mum one day and said I wanted to learn guitar instead.”


Krista’s second experience with martial arts was not much better. “I was now in primary school,” she says, “and had grown into an overweight, awkward kid with asthma. My parents encouraged me to try different kinds of sports, but I would quickly end up exhausted, out of breath and didn’t enjoy any of them. I was also finding it difficult to make friends and was bullied for my weight. Then I saw The Karate Kid movie, about a young boy being bullied at school who finds a master to teach him karate. It sounds silly to say, but for people my age it was a powerful and inspiring movie. I wanted to find a calm, wise master like Mr. Miyagi who would teach me how to find balance and stability in my life. I asked my parents to look for karate classes and joined the first dojo we found. The sensei spent a lot of the lessons boasting about how many ways he could injure people and not much time teaching martial arts. The class numbers slowly dwindled over a year, until we had gone from 30 people in a community centre to just myself and my dad training in the sensei’s small basement. One night on the car ride home, my dad and I agreed that it was time to stop.”



A Spark of Taiji Turns Into a Flame


But all this would change a few years later when Krista was in high school, when, during an assembly, she remembers, “A Chen taijiquan master came to the school to demonstrate taijiquan. My impression of taiji was that it was only for old people in the park, but as the shifu explained that taiji was practised slowly and with precision so that one could be strong and stable when moving fast, I thought how much it sounded like learning the piano, where I learnt scales slowly and with precision so I could eventually play fast. The demonstration then included fajin techniques and I was really impressed by the sudden, explosive power. Afterwards, I searched for classes to learn taijiquan but I never found the shifu. It wasn’t as easy to find classes before the internet!”


Some years passed and after leaving school and meeting her partner, Mitch, they moved to Sydney. Krista continued studying visual arts and became a professional artist. During her studies she learned about anatomy and the mechanics of the human body, and her mind often turned back to martial arts, thinking about the dynamics of balance and structure of the human form. “I also still loved watching martial arts movies,” she says, “and dreamed of practicing with a sword on the side of a mountain, while beautiful flute music played and flower petals drifted on the wind.”



On the other side of romance, Krista found a big city, Sydney can be a dangerous place. “I had a few scary experiences in our first few years living here,” she recalls, “travelling home late at night on dark streets after work or parties. I would feel nervous in late night buses or if I was walking alone on the street. Men called out to me and sometimes followed me. Finding a good martial arts style and school was still in the back of my mind. I thought of that assembly in high school, and the shifu I had seen demonstrate Chen style, so I started looking for a taijiquan school. After going to the local park and finding a group of old Chinese people practising taijiquan, I joined in for the morning and followed along. It was fun, but there was no instruction so I didn’t really know what I was doing. During the class, someone pulled me aside and said if I was really interested in learning taijiquan properly, I should call Shifu Alice Bei Dong from the Pei Lei Wushu Association.”


Krista called Shifu Alice, and joined a beginners class.  “Even from the first class,” she says, “I knew I had found the right school and style for me. Taiji felt natural and comfortable, and the mechanics of the body made sense. I found the slow, deliberate movement very calming as well, and felt quickly that it would be good for bringing my temper under control. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to training. I was fascinated by the principles and would talk constantly to anyone who would listen about why it was such a great martial art.”


A Leap to Competition Inspires


Krista’s teacher encouraged her to join national and international competitions quite early in her training, which gave her clear and tangible training goals and pushed her to work harder. “My first national competition was terrifying,” Krista recalls. “We had travelled interstate to Melbourne, and the competition was during winter so the weather was extremely cold. As I started my first individual competition form, my hands and legs started shaking so uncontrollably I felt like I was having a seizure! The combination of nerves and the cold was so shocking that I forgot what I was doing and stopped halfway through my form. It was the worst experience I could possibly have for my first time! And yet, I managed to get a decent score and secure my first ever medals, a silver and bronze.”



A Taiji Dream in China


When Shifu Alice said she wanted Krista to compete in China, she said yes immediately. It would be her first ever trip to China and her first international competition, but Krista saw it as a huge opportunity and adventure. In 2014 she travelled to Anhui, China for the 6th World Traditional Wushu Championships. “There were so many things to prepare aside from just our performance,” Krista remembers. “We had to budget for travel, organize passports and visas, and even think about trying to learn a new language, and the first thing I looked for was the phrase

“我不吃肉” (“I don’t eat meat”) because I am a vegetarian! Luckily on this trip I had other friends who could speak Chinese!”


China became a whole new experience for Krista. “Anhui was incredibly beautiful,” she says, “and so different to Australia. I clearly remember being on the bus on the first morning of competition as we travelled to the performance venue. Out of the morning mist, we all gasped as we saw the huge Golden Buddha between the mountain peaks. It felt surreal, like one of my kungfu movie dreams.



“At the opening ceremony,” says Krista, “I looked around and took in how many competitors there were, from countries all over the world, all coming together for the love of martial arts. I was even meeting Australian athletes for the first time who had come from other states and schools. It was the first time in my life that there was nothing else to do except train, talk and perform martial arts with fellow athletes, and I felt all sorts of emotions from excitement and joy to nervousness and fear.”


Along with so many emotions, Krista found her first international performance overwhelming. “The competition had four performance mats,” she remembers, “so the Australian team was spread out around the venue. I was waiting in the queue with the other competitors in the very early morning, while mist was still laying at the bottom of the Buddha’s feet. I was trembling again from the cold and my nerves. Suddenly I realized I was completely alone. I looked around and felt like I was on another planet. I was far away from home, my friends and fellow athletes were waiting for their own performances, and I didn’t recognize anyone or anything. Tears welled in my eyes and I quietly started to cry. The athlete in the queue in front of me turned and saw I was crying. She was from Italy and didn’t speak any English, but she could easily see what was happening in my heart. She smiled and squeezed my shoulder, telling me without words that I wasn’t really alone. We were all there for the same reason, and we were all in it together. I managed to shake my way through that first performance and even though I didn’t place in the medals, I felt proud of making it all the way there and doing my best to represent my school and my country.”



Once some of her nerves and fear had worn off, Krista started to enjoy the experience a lot more. “The celebratory atmosphere was infectious,” she recalls, “particularly amongst the big countries like Brazil. The Brazilian team was always having a great time, starting chants and cheering and dancing for each other. When my partner was waiting in a queue for his own routine, the Brazilian team were jumping and chanting the name of their own competitor nearby. I started chanting for my partner: “Mitch! Mitch! Mitch!” The Brazilian team turned and looked at us and, all smiling, started chanting for Mitch, too. We were all competing to demonstrate our skills and be proud of our countries, but the international celebration of martial arts was the most important thing.”


Krista adds, “My fellow Pei Lei wushu athletes and I were performing a group taijiquan routine towards the end of the competition, and that was the happiest I had felt on the mat so far. Even though there is the feeling of pressure that making a mistake might cost your team points, I felt connected to my friends and schoolmates and felt confident for the first time. Our performance earned us a bronze medal, and we were all delighted with the result.”


World Taijiquan Championships


Wanting to make the most of their trip to China, Krista’s Australian taiji teammates also entered into the 2014 IWUF World Taijiquan Championships on the same trip, which were held in Chengdu. She recalls, “Getting from one venue to the next was an unexpected ordeal. We had to leave at 4 a.m. in a rented car to get to the airport on time. The driver arrived in a car that was almost too small for the four of us travelling together and all of our weapons and luggage, but we managed to squash in for an uncomfortable four-hour drive.”


Krista recalls, “There were less competitors from Australia in this second competition, but the team leader Darlene was incredibly friendly and warm and made us feel looked after, even though we had never met her before. She was there at every event, giving away water, snacks and hugs whenever they were needed. As one of the oldest competitors in my category, I was feeling nervous again when I saw the other athletes practising on the mats. They were all so much younger and more flexible than me! I resolved to just do my best and try not to worry.”


“The atmosphere for this competition felt more intense and serious than the previous one,” Krista recalls, “and it was the first time I had seen any taijiquan routines including movements with a degree of difficulty. There was also a large crowd of public spectators who came in every day to watch, applauding and cheering for the athletes. I was impressed by the strength and elegance of the younger taijiquan performers, marveling at their precision jumps, balances and kicks.”



“My favourite performance was during the exhibition routines, when an athlete from Russia performed a chen pao chui routine. I’d never seen a pao chui routine before, and I was blown away by it. The crowd was also astonished, with people cheering and shouting “Jiayou!” throughout the whole routine. As the athlete finished his routine and returned to the side of the mat to wait for his score, the crowd applauded continually. Then it was revealed that points had been deducted because his routine was under the time limit. I was disappointed for him, but with a show of good Wude () , he simply smiled and saluted the judges and audience. Later that evening, I happened to be in the same elevator as him. I told him enthusiastically how much I had enjoyed his routine and shook his hand. With a big smile, he said slowly “I don’t speak English.” I tried again by pointing at him and saying “Chen Taijiquan!” then showing him two thumbs up. I think he understood that!”


After the competition was over, Krista and her teammates spent some time travelling around Dujiangyan and Chengdu. “We walked up Qingchengshan,” she says, “and visited the Taoist temples. I took many photos and painted scenes of my travels when I got home. It is still some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.”


A Taiji Athlete Matures


Since those first competitions, Krista has had many more opportunities to compete and perform both nationally and internationally. In 2017 she was given the opportunity to be team leader for the Australian Team travelling to the 2017 IWUF World Kungfu Championships. “It was a lot more organising than before,” says Krista. “as I had to coordinate registration and travel information for 20+ athletes and spectators, as well as myself. Focusing on the needs of a larger group was helpful for my nerves, because it gave me something else to think about. I had been training hard for this competition, and in particular I had been working with my fellow school athletes on a group jian routine that we were really proud of.”



Krista embraced her role as team leader, took it as an opportunity for growth, and vowed that, “I would make sure that none of the athletes in my team ever felt alone on the mat. I would be there, taking photos and notes, and starting up chants of “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!” whenever it would help the team. At breakfast and dinner we would spend more time together, and I started to talk more often with the team leaders from other countries. I still keep in contact with athletes from America, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Poland who I met on that trip.”


She recalls fondly that the highlight of that competition was Australia’s group performance. “I had performed reasonably well in my solo routines,” Krista says, “scoring my first individual medal (bronze) for my barehand routine. As we waited at the side of the mat for our group performance to begin, I had a sudden quiet in my mind and heart, and all of my nerves drained away. I felt perfectly connected and in tune with my fellow group performers, and felt a deep, warm affection for them. Our performance ran beautifully. I could see everyone working in harmony, each movement timed together and following the same rhythm. We walked off the mat to wait for our scores and I was filled with an amazing sense of warmth and joy, no matter what the result. I was with my wushu-kungfu family, my brothers and sisters in martial arts, and this was a special moment we would always share together.”



“When our score came up, we were all in shock. It was the second highest score out of all the group forms. We had won gold!”


Evolving New Roles, Finding Community


Back in Australia, Krista continued to study taijiquan and wushu with Shifu Alice, and eventually started teaching beginners in her school. “I teach visual arts as well,” Krista notes, “and it gives me so much happiness to help other people, whether in their understanding of wushu or visual art. I continued to enter national competitions, including the regular Tai Chi Association of Australia competition, which showcases taiji practitioners from around Australia.”


Seeing and meeting so many other taiji martial artists opened my eyes to the different kinds of techniques and methods that are used in internal wushu ,” says Krista, “and my study and understanding of anatomy made me want to keep investigating the deeper mechanics and philosophies of taiji. Over the years I would see the same faces at competitions, and I ended up with many friends from the community. We would cheer and encourage each other before routines, and congratulate or commiserate on the result. Soon I knew most of the people at the competitions and would arrive to waves, hugs and cheerful conversation every time I attended.”



A Golden Aussie Dream


The highlight of these national competitions for Krista was at the 2018 Tai Chi Association of Australia event. “I entered the maximum number of events,” she says, “hoping for a chance to win the Overall Championship honour, which was given to the individual male and female competitors who scored the highest overall in all of their routines. In previous years I had come close, but had always fallen short. But that year I was inspired from our recent trip to China and felt more confident and sure of my skills than ever before. For the first time, I stepped onto the performance arena and my hands didn’t shake uncontrollably. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I won gold in all of my categories and achieved my dream, becoming the Overall Champion in the women’s categories.”


On top of all these achievements, Krista says enthusiastically that her favourite wushu experience so far has been her most recent trip to China. “In 2019,” she recalls, “I was asked to be team leader for the Australian Team travelling to the 2019 IWUF World Kungfu Championships and I said yes straight away. By now, the martial arts community in Australia had become like family, and I couldn’t wait to see everyone again. I even planned to travel around Emei and Chengdu with my partner and a friend from Melbourne who we had met at the first competition. When we arrived in Emei, our hotel was a beautiful resort set amongst the forest. Before breakfast each morning, I would sit by a lake and sketch for relaxation. Members of the Australian team and international friends would walk past, and often stop to have a chat or drink some tea.”



Krista continues, “On the bus rides to the venue, the Australian team would often start singing pop songs together for the whole journey, laughing and trying to dance on the moving bus. We went to hot springs together, relaxing in the different thermal ponds and then splashing around in the cold pool. We gave our battle cry of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!” often in the arena, and soon other countries were joining in. Our friendship and comradery was infectious. I remember walking between the performance arena and the buses, and hearing a little girl from Singapore chanting “Aussie Aussie Aussie” as she skipped along. As the event ended, it was an unexpected but wonderful honor to achieve my personal best at international competition, two silvers and a bronze for my taijidao, duilian and taijiquan routines.”



Coming Into Her Own


At 38 years old, Krista was the oldest competitor in her categories, but, she says, “I was the most confident and comfortable I had ever felt at international competitions. I was proud of my performances, even when my taijidao was placed in the same category against athletes performing fast wushu routines. Winning or losing wasn’t my focus; I was only interested in representing my understanding of wushu, and making my Shifu proud. I hand-embroidered cherry blossom flowers and an Australian native bird onto my costume to have a connection to my home.


Speaking of her home nation, Krista also discovered that her journey in martial arts has given her a wonderful insight into Chinese culture not only in her visits to China but also in Australia. She says, “Many community and government organizations will host celebrations of major cultural events like Chinese New Year, Qingming, Moon Festival and Buddha’s Birthday, and I have often been asked to join in with a performance to commemorate the day. The history, and traditions of these events, is interesting and inspiring, and I am always excited to be part of it. As with my art, I am compelled by receiving and passing on knowledge, and I feel a great joy and purpose in being a small part of the long and storied traditions of martial arts and Chinese culture.”



Krista’s most recent competition was at the 2019 Australia National  Kungfu Wushu Championships in Queensland, which was shortly before the pandemic started to take hold nationally. “The wushu and taiji communities in Australia are relatively small compared to other countries,” she notes, “but it is truly a community of generous, kind, dedicated and enthusiastic athletes who all passionately love martial arts. On arriving at the opening ceremony, I was greeted by a slew of familiar faces, many of whom I had coached at the 2019 IWUF World Kungfu Championships. Even though we come from different cities and states, when we get together it has become like a family reunion. Long gone are the days of feeling alone, uncomfortable or straight-up terrified at competitions; instead, I feel the support and love of not just my own team mates but the whole community. I watch my friends performing their routines with delight, cheering for them and congratulating them even if we are in the same category. And with more students starting their own journeys every week, I’m looking forward to seeing how the community will grow and develop over the coming years.”



Krista affirms that wushu have changed and shaped her life since she started over a decade ago. “I was looking for a master who was wise and kind,” she adds, “to teach me strength, balance, power and self-defence. I have found all of that and so much more. My physical and mental well-being have improved dramatically, I understand much more about myself and am a more centred, confident, calm person.”


For Krista, connection is the ultimate prize that far outstrips any medals, public honors or exotic scenery. “The greatest reward has been joining the community of amazing like-minded people here in Sydney and around the world,” she says emphatically. “I feel connected to my wushu- kungfu friends and family with the deep bonds of shared joys, achievements, sorrows, celebrations and frustrations, brought together by our mutual love of wushu.”

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