Athlete of the Month 07-Irene Castro – Spain’s Champion Triumphs Over Tragedy

Irene Castro is a member of the Spanish national wushu team, and has won numerous championships over the past 12 years. Most recently she won the 3rd category prize in short weapons at the 8th World Kungfu Championships in Emeishan in 2019. Irene has overcome immense obstacles to follow her wushu dream, including a life-changing accident in 2018 with a broken neck. She recalls that wushu gave her the strength to build her life back, and she says she believes she can be a role model for wushu practitioners who are going through bad times — because she knows how it feels losing your health and not knowing if you will be able to walk, run or train again.


Wushu Beginnings

Irene, now 38, hails from Madrid, and began practicing wushu when she was 24. “I used to be a ballerina,” she says, “but I was interested in martial arts and fight scenes from the movies as a way of expression. Plus, I wanted to learn how to defend myself. I learned about wushu because my ex-boyfriend attended a class in the gym where we trained.” Irene threw herself into training with enthusiasm and a humble attitude. “When I began training,” se recalls, “I was very, very bad in wushu but I had good physical skills due to ballet. My coach made me learn everything from the beginning, and we always practiced jibengong. He also encouraged me to go to competition.”


Irene’s first competition was in the Toledo University Open Championships, where she got a silver medal. She recalls, “I remember myself almost out of breath, and I only competed in one category, I was a beginner, with lots of passion, but still not very good. After that competition I went to many more, and finally to the National Championships, where I ended in 6th place.” As the years went by Irene kept on training every day, and she says every championships was better. “I love competition,” she says, “because I love to test myself. Finally, the day I won a gold medal came, and I became national champion.”

Irene was drawn to the many styles of traditional wushu for various reasons. “When I started learning wushu,” she recalls, “I began with empty hand routines. As I mentioned before, I learned everything from the basics up. I practice jibengong everyday because I believe that you are as skilled in wushu as your jibengong is. I find empty handed styles very important for the same reason. If you are able to perform an empty hand routine then It would be easier for you to learn weapons routines.”


Irene does have some favorite styles. “Fanziquan,” she says, “is one of my favorite empty hand styles due to its speed and technique. It fits me, I feel like I can express myself when I am practicing it. I believe it is very martial and technical. My coach taught me jianshu because he wanted me to go to competition. He allowed me to learn daoshu also but he recommended that I do jian for competition. Now I can say that I am happy with the decision we made because I love jianshu — not only free taolu routines, but also compulsory, especially the 2nd International routine which I enjoy a lot. Furthermore, I think that the long tassel sword is a very impressive wushu style and very artistic too, and you need good physical skills but also some kind of artistic flow.”


For a while these exciting styles captivated her, but as Irene learned more, and became more adept, she realized she also wanted to pursue internal styles. “Internal styles are a very important part of wushu,” she states. “I knew about Bagua when a I saw it in a national championship, and I was drawn to it right away. It is beautiful and I have been studying it since then. In my opinion, it is one of the most difficult wushu styles and I am still learning it.”


Gaining Confidence


In 2015 Irene won a silver medal in short weapons and a bronze medal in empty hand at the European Wushu Kungfu Championships, and two years later at that event in 2017 she won a bronze medal in internal styles. “It’s been a long time now since I went to those championships,” she recalls, “but I can remember every moment clearly. It was a phenomenal experience, I think I did a good job there, and there were very good athletes.”

As Irene progressed, she wanted to go to the source of wushu – China — where she trained at the Shanghai University of Sports, and returned a number of times. While she was there she had some unique experiences. “I think that one of the most interesting championships I have ever attended took place in Taizhou,” she says, “and it was for athletes from the Zhejiang province, so not a lot of foreigners were there. The judges were also all Chinese. I got a very good score (over 9) there and I am very proud of that. Besides the event, I was able to spend some days in Taizhou International Wenwu School and meet new friends there.”


“But the best competition I have ever been to was the 8th World Kungfu Championships in China,” states Irene with definite enthusiasm. “I learned a lot about competition and also about myself there, and I won the bronze medal.” This might seem like a natural course of events for any evolving athlete, but Irene’s medal at the 8th WKFC was not simply a championship medal – it meant something else entirely to her on a deeply personal level. Because a year before her neck was broken in an injury, and she wasn’t even sure she would ever walk again.


Tragedy, Perseverance, and Wushu


After a fall, Irene began to experience severe pain in her neck. Busy with work, she didn’t  want to go to see the doctor and went for physiotherapy instead. “But,” she says, “I could tell that my physiotherapist got scared because I suffered a very bad muscle spasm. Then she sent me to the doctor. He told me that he needed to make some tests and I found out that I broke my neck between cervical vertebrae and I had to have a surgery to get a prosthesis replacement.”

Irene recalls, “I have been through a lot in my life but the injury was one of the worst moments I can remember. I suddenly lost my health and I felt like I had lost everything. I am an athlete but I also had a 9 to 6 job, and suddenly I could not do anything because doctors told me It could be very dangerous. So, I could not drive a car, I could not train anymore, I could not go to my job. I just lost everything that makes me what I am.”

“I remember myself crying every day before the surgery because I was scared and I did not know If I would be able to have a normal life ever again,” Irene says. “Then, the day came and days after surgery I could finally go home. The first month was horrible because I lost muscle strength in my neck and also mobility. I could not get up, I was not able to take a shower on my own, I could not even dress, so I was absolutely dependent. But once doctors told me that I could go out and go for short walks that gave me hope and I started to feel better.”

A few months passed as Irene slowly began to heal. But then her support team offered a ray of hope, and her healing journey truly began, with the help and inspiration of wushu. “My doctor Jorge,” remembers Irene, “from the High Performance Athlete Center told me something very interesting and positive — he had the opinion that I should try to go to a top competition, like WKFC. He said, ‘you know, you should go not to win a medal but to get to the level to try, so you could get fully recover.’ What a surprise to me! I trusted him and I worked hard with CSD physiotherapists and Federation physiotherapist Eva Rodríguez, and also with my team mate Fran García. We spent hours together because I was not able to turn my head without falling to the ground — just imagine that for wushu! So, I took my medication and worked hard every single day, and I made it to the nationals in fanziquan, bagua and changsuijian (long tassel sword). I qualified.”


With effort and patience Irene improved little by little. “It was a very tough year,” she says, “but finally I went to the World Kungfu Championships. I love wushu, so just being there was very special. Now, I look back and I think that I have learned a lot form this experience. I have learned that hard work always pays off. Even If I had not been able to get to the event, the long journey to get there was itself a prize. I cried a lot but I achieved a little more every day, and step by step you can go anywhere. Learning and working towards an objective is a very special prize.”


Triumph at the 8th WKFC in Emeishan


From Spain, Irene traveled to Emeishan in China for the 8th World Kungfu Championships. “I did not tell anyone there about the previous year and the injury, only my team mates were aware of it, because I just wanted to feel normal,” she says. “It was a very important championships for me, that I could be me on the carpet and enjoy competition again.”

“To be honest,” Irene continues, “I consider myself a medium average athlete. I mean, I think I am not so talented but I really, really like what I do. I am passionate and when I won the 3rd category prize, I felt proud because we were many athletes there, and regarding the judges I like to think that they saw passion in me and in my wushu. It was a very special moment, and other athletes from different countries came to congratulate me — they liked my routine and I think that is also a victory and very special.”


“I have been in China six times,” Irene says, “for different competitions and also training, but the WKFC was a top experience! I love wushu and WKFC was like the biggest wushu party ever. So many athletes, coaches, judges, so many different styles. I met a lot of people from different countries and different schools, made new friends, and the competition was very interesting.

I was able to visit Emeishan and I would recommend to everyone to visit the mountain, it is a very spiritual place, and it is closely related to wushu.”

Irene’s medal was more than a personal triumph, it was also a high moment for her coach, her team, and for Spain. “Spain is a great country — I feel respect for my country so it is an honor to represent Spain in competition. My coach was very proud and happy,” she says, “and we took a lot of pictures together and sent them to the Federation and they published them. I brought pictures and a thank-you letter to my doctor and my physiotherapist — they are very good professionals and I wanted to let them know how much I value what they did for me.”


Wushu, Family and Balance


Wushu has played a vital role in Irene’s life, and she is philosophical about her own growth as an athlete, and the wushu community she is connected to. “Wushu is not a popular sport in Spain,” she observes, “like football or athletics. But we Spanish people love martial arts, so I think that the number of athletes will grow in Spain. We are working hard towards this objective, we promote our sport on TV, on social media, we go to international tournaments and we collaborate with schools.”

Irene continues, “Wushu is like a big family. I know many people from different countries and we keep in touch by social media. I am friends with people from the Netherlands, Czech Republic, UK, Cuba, Finland, China and so on. When you are a wushu athlete you achieve new goals, and you travel for competition and training, I find it very interesting because you meet new cultures and people and it is enriching.”

Irene also credits many people who helped her along the path of her wushu journey. ”It is very important to have a good coach. I mean, a good person but also an ambitious coach, someone who can take you far. I believe that I am very lucky, my coach Chema Guardiola is severe but he had studied wushu for many years since he was young. My trainer Francisco is a very good personal trainer and physical skills are closely related to success in sports. Here in Spain, I have also attended to Serrato seminars and Noa’s classes and I learned a lot.”

Irene adds, “I have trained in China with master Zhu Dong with SUS team and I am very grateful because it helped me improve my taolu. I went there in different years and also trained with Xi Bingxi and Li Xiangmei. In Europe I have attended to Xu Hao seminars and Zhan Fang classes, and I met Ge Chunyan in a seminar in Germany with Haojun Zhuo. Those are wonderful experiences.”


Role Model and Inspiration

Irene’s story offers great inspiration to many striving for balance in life and overcoming obstacles. “I have a full-time job as a sales representative and account manager for a pharmaceutical company,” says Irene. “I am an athlete and I am a mother of two babies so sometimes it might be difficult to reconcile all of these aspects of my life. I try my best but sometimes it is kind of exhausting, but I think that it is also a privilege. My family is supportive, especially my partner and my parents. My kids are the best thing that ever happened to me, they are still babies and they are my motivation in life.”

“Wushu completes me,” she says, “it helps me to be me. I am a highly competitive person so competition is good for me, it just fits me and my personality. I am also meticulous and that is a plus in wushu due to its technical requirements and complexity of movements. It is a very complete martial art and I like to be martial but also kind of an artist. Besides, I like being strong and if you are in top competition you need to be powerful, and I find that very rewarding. So physically and mentally wushu is like a treasure for me.”

Future Wushu Goals


We asked Irene what her goals are for the future, and what her advice is for athletes going through hard times like she had with her broken neck. While she would very much like to return to Emeishan, “I cannot attend the 9th WKFC,” says Irene, “because I am pregnant, but step by step I would like to get to competition next year.”

“Wushu has had a huge impact in my life,” she states. “I can say that it is a part of what I am. I would like to be an international judge one day because judges are highly necessary and I like teaching jibengong and basics to people due to wushu’s benefits for health. Honestly, I would love to go to competition in the senior category too. I hope wushu becomes more and more popular in Spain every year. I will continue promoting wushu as far as I can. I am a national judge, 2nd DAN, 1st DUAN, I teach in seminars, I organize events and championships like the Open Chinese Martial Arts Championships in Fuenlabrada, and when someone asks for help, I try to bring it.”


“To sport practitioners going through injuries or bad times I would tell them just keep on trying, because if you try you will not fail. Trying means success. And also stay clear and focused, define one objective and go for it, one step a day, little by little — short steps but with a long view of the path can take you far. Finally, if you are able to, surround yourself with good people and good and honest athletes and friends, and be kind to them and let them help you.”

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