As one of Australia’s most seasoned wushu competitors, Corey Johnstone has dedicated more than half his life to the sport, and it has taken him places he never imagined. He has been a participant in IWUF world championship events since 2005, he’s witnessed the development and evolution of wushu’s rules and standards, and he has also helped build an Australian and international following for his favorite event, xingyi quan. Corey’s long and colorful wushu journey has led him to embrace internal styles, TCM, and Taoist philosophy, and inspired him to travel widely, exploring other cultures, and making lifelong friends around the world. Along the way he faced deep challenges and struggles with serious injury, but wushu became the path he took to regain his health. Corey has seemingly perfected the ideal life balance with work and the sport he loves. Today he continues to look toward elite competition to challenge his best self, and he has also parlayed his wushu training into an exciting stuntman career in Australian film and television.
Corey, 42, was born in Melbourne, Australia, and still lives there today. Growing up he fell in love with the movies of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and loved reading kungfu magazines. “I would obsessively watch or read anything kungfu-related I could get my hands on,” he recalls of the pre-internet age. However, by the time he began training as a teenager the internet was starting to change a burgeoning athlete’s access to wushu. “I didn’t formally start training wushu until my late teens,” he says, “and very quickly I began spending all of my free time training. When I wasn’t training, I was watching and analyzing the techniques of athletes from China on the internet.”
In 2003, when he was 23, Corey went to China to train wushu. “Training in China is an experience like no other,” he says. “I was extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to train with members of the Beijing Wushu Team. This was such an eye opener and my first real taste of wushu at its highest quality. To be around athletes of this level and to see and experience the intensity and training that they go through, each and every day, was priceless. I came away extremely motivated and with a much deeper understanding of how to train.”
Two years later Corey would compete in his first international competition, the 8th WWC in Hanoi, in 2005. He recalls, “It was quite an overwhelming experience to be honest. It was the first time the competition included the new optional taolu category, and also for the first time nandu movements. Back then I was competing in nanquan. It was amazing to witness how athletes from all over the world had adjusted to the new rules, and I got to experience first-hand the direction wushu as a sport was heading.”
Corey also made the most of his time in Vietnam, and he had the freedom to explore another country and culture in depth. “Vietnam was an amazing host nation,” he remembers. “A few team-mates and myself stayed on and backpacked our way through Southeast Asia after competition. Some of the competition’s volunteers that were in charge of looking after the international teams invited us to stay with their families in Hanoi. This was such an incredible experience to be able to spend a few days living with local people. They were so generous opening up their family home to us. We have all remained friends to this day.”
A New Wushu Path, Discovering Internal Arts
Corey’s wushu career was now full speed ahead – until it wasn’t. He was excited to compete in his next big international competition, the 9th World Wushu Championships, held in Beijing no less. But in the lead up to this event Corey suffered an injury to his lower back forcing him to suddenly step away from wushu and stop training entirely. It was a devastating setback. He remembers vividly, “I sought out many different professional medical opinions regarding my injury, all of which involved some form of surgery, pain management plans through medications, or combinations of both. None of which I was willing to do.”
“So,” Corey says, “during this time I sought out the expertise of my now current coach, Dr. Shao Zhao Ming. Having also suffered a serious back injury as a teenager, he was able to recover and successfully win back-to-back National Open Champion titles in 1989 and 1990 as a member of the Shaanxi Wushu Team. Through his guidance, and a combination of acupuncture, TCM and qigong practices, I was slowly able to resume my wushu training. During this time he introduced me to the internal arts of xingyi, bagua and taiji. He instilled in me that the internal arts are complete systems. They have deep roots in Taoist philosophy and incorporate the self-healing principles of TCM. They are not merely just a form of physical exercise. This played a key role in my recovery.”
The road to recovery was long, and required patience and perseverance. But when Corey returned to competition, after practicing xingyi for his health and regaining strength, he was thrilled to discover a new event added to the next world championships he would compete in. “In 2015 I returned to international competition after a long hiatus due to the injury,” he says. “The 13th WWC were held in Jakarta, Indonesia. This was the first time xingyi was added as an event. Having traditional internal styles was an important addition to the competition line up, and it helped to increase the exposure of xingyi around the world. I was lucky enough to place 6th.”
Back in Australia, Corey kept training hard, refining his technique and skills. In 2017, at the 14th WWC in Kazan, Russia, he was able to crack the top 5, placing 5th in xingyi quan. Inspired, he went back to Australia, and set his sights on Shanghai in two years.
Before he went to another WWC, Corey joined a large, gregarious and spirited Australian team for the World Kungfu (Traditional Wushu) Championships in Emeishan. The pressure was a lot less, but as he found out, every competition offers a new learning experience. “The World Kungfu Championships have such a different vibe compared to the elite WWC competitions. Because countries are not limited to sending teams of 10, more athletes from all skill levels and age groups can compete. It has a much less stressful atmosphere as everyone is really just there to have a good time and celebrate their love for wushu whilst showcasing their skills.”
“Having just recently completed in Kazan at the 14th WWC, “Corey remembers, “I came into the Kungfu Championships not knowing what to expect. I was the first athlete to complete in the first event on day one. My name was called and I walked out onto the mat fully focused and ready to go. I began performing my xingyi routine. Within a few movements as I turned to change direction I noticed that a second athlete was also on the floor performing their routine at the same time as me. I quickly realized one of the major differences between the two competitions. To cater to the sheer amount of athletes they had to run two athletes at a time. Narrowly avoiding a collision, I managed to maintain my composure while seeing the humor in the situation. It was not my best performance but I did still manage take home a silver medal. Knowing what I know now, I would have definitely repositioned myself on the floor to accommodate a second athlete. Looking back on it, I have fond memories of this competition.”
A Bittersweet Moment in Shanghai
By the time Corey arrived in Shanghai in 2019 for the 15th World Wushu Championships he was looking to improve his ranking and make a podium finish. His family had made the trip to Shanghai to watch him perform and cheer him on. The xingyi event was packed with talent, and, energized, Corey gave a stellar performance earning him a score of 9.23. His closest competitor had a nearly identical score – but beat Corey’s by a slim 3/100ths of a point.
Looking back, Corey notes, “I’m not going to lie — it was pretty devastating. To have missed out on the medals by 3/100ths of a point was rough and definitely stung a little. I think more so because my family had flown out from Australia to support me and I would have loved for them to have seen me up on that podium. When I first represented Australia I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever have the opportunity to medal at an international event, so focusing on winning medals has never been my driving motivation. I have always just wanted to give my best performance, and make my coach and my family proud. I am not a naturally competitive person. I use competitions more as the inspiration to stay motivated, to train hard each and every day. I know that if I apply myself and focus my energy on my daily training requirements it is inevitable that I can reach my goal of being the best I can be. Wushu has taught me this, and it is something that I try to apply to every aspect of my life.”
The Appeal of Xingyi
We asked Corey what appeals to him about xingyi quan. “There are so many things I love about xingyi,” he replies. “While definitely not the showiest or most flamboyant style to watch, I often think of it as the simplest looking, most complicated style in all of wushu. It is this contradicting nature that I love about xingyi. I think as it is internal in nature, it closely matches my personality. I can be quite introverted at times with occasional explosive and energetic outbursts. I think also biomechanically I am quite suited to xingyi. Being rather tall for a wushu athlete at just over six feet, I would be at quite a mechanical disadvantage competing in the faster style against much shorter athletes with lower centers of gravity and shorter, faster limbs. I like the introspective nature of xingyi. It challenges me to look inward and not merely focus on the external, physical aspects of my training. This can only be explored through moments of stillness and quiet reflection. It really helps me bring balance to my otherwise busy lifestyle.”
Outside of wushu, Corey runs his own small personal training business. It lets him apply many of his training skills to his work, and also gives him freedom to train wushu on his own terms. “I have always worked in and around gyms helping people reach their fitness goals,” he notes. “This profession allowed me flexible hours so I could organize my clients around my own wushu training. I could train people early in the mornings before they go to work, allowing me to do my daily wushu training during the day. I would then train more clients in the late afternoon before going to train with my coach in the evenings. This worked well for me, as it was the only way I could commit the sheer amount of hours to my wushu training while still being able to support myself and fund my competitions.”
Proudly Wearing the Green and Gold
As a longtime member of the Australian Wushu Team, Corey reflects, “The quality of Australian wushu has improved immensely since I first represented Australia back in 2005. I think this is also evident in our recent placings and world events. I have been lucky to be able to watch it grow and improve over the years. Representing Australia is such an honor. It is hard to describe the feeling of walking into a world event wearing ‘the green & gold’ uniform. It is something that all kids that play sport growing up in Australia dream of. We are a proud sporting nation and it is the highest honor for an athlete to represent Australia at an international competition.”
Corey also gives much credit for his success to his longtime coach, Shao Zhao Ming. “My coach,” he says, “is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. I have never known anyone as passionate about wushu and passing on his wealth of knowledge to future generations. Dr. Shao has played an integral role in the development of wushu in Australia. He was head coach of the Beijing Sports University Wushu Team from 1992-1994. He is a former Australian team coach and is a current serving member of the Technical Committee for the IWUF. He was an amazing wushu athlete, twice winning national all-round champion in China, going on to being awarded the ‘Wu Yin’, wushu’s highest honor. He also holds a PHD in TCM acupuncture and dedicates his life to helping others. He is so extremely generous with his knowledge and expertise while still remaining incredibly humble. Not only has he been instrumental in helping me achieve my sporting goals, he is someone I aspire to emulate in life.”
Wushu has also helped Corey explore far corners of the globe. “I have been extremely lucky to compete all around the world and experience many different cultures. Because the lead up to international competitions can be quite intense, I always try to take time off immediately after competition to unwind and try to immerse myself in the culture of the host nation. I am extremely thankful for all of the great friendships I have made over the years. Wushu brings together people from all over the world. From all different backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs. We are all united with our love for wushu and are one big wushu family.”
Wushu Goals, Covid Training, and Becoming a Stuntman
“My goal is to always keep improving,” Corey states, when we asked him about his future goals. “I have placed 6th, 5th, and 4th consecutively at the last 3 WWC so hopefully I can continue that trend and make my way onto that podium!”
Training wushu during Covid was tough, Corey admits. “ Living in Melbourne,” he recalls, “we became the most locked down city in the world. For months on end we were only allowed to leave the house for an hour a day to exercise outdoors. Having gone from spending several hours a day training prior to Covid, I had to improvise a lot. Not having the space to properly train was tough but I know I was not alone. Athletes all around the world would have experienced the same frustration. Training xingyi helped though, as I didn’t require too much room to train and could focus a lot on stationary posture/training as well as general conditioning and flexibility training. It gave me time to reflect and focus on some of my weaker points and certain aspects of training that may have been neglected due to busy schedules.”
Corey also used this time to begin a bachelor degree in Film and Television production at University in Melbourne, and since the pandemic has eased he has recently begun working as a stuntman. “Working in the film industry is something I have always dreamed of ever since I was a kid,” he says. “One of the positives that came out of spending so much time in lockdown during Covid was I finally had the time to finalize my stunt qualifications and officially get graded as a professional stunt performer. I had been lucky enough to cross train with stunt teams including past members of the Jackie Chan stunt team for the last several years, but was always focused on my wushu career.”
In the absence of international competition over the past couple of years, Corey was able to pursue a different avenue while still utilizing his wushu skills. “Wushu is very well respected in the stunt industry,” he notes. “Because wushu is a performance art that requires such a vast variety of different skills and physical attributes, it is invaluable to me on a film set — whether it is being able to quickly pick up last minute fight choreography, getting knocked to the ground repeatedly, or being able to mimic the way an actor moves when I am doubling them. I owe so much to wushu.
In the future I would really like to be able to work on wushu specific projects. Whether in feature film or documentary formats, I would love to help expose a new generation to the art form that has given me so much.”