Moms, coaches and a former teacher cheer on Yellowknife karate athletes at the Canada Games

Vincent Lumacad performs kata for a panel of judges at the Canada Winter Games on Monday. (Team NT - image credit)
Vincent Lumacad performs kata for a panel of judges at the Canada Winter Games on Monday. (Team NT - image credit)

As Trang Pham dropped her son, Matthew Bui, off at the Yellowknife airport on his way to the Canada Winter Games in P.E.I., she felt a mixture of nervousness and excitement.

Watching the games online Monday, her heart thudded as 17-year-old Bui squared off in karate against youths from across the country.

"I see they try their best, and my heart keeps pounding, pounding, like, 'Go for it, boy! Let people know where we are, we're from a small town — we got this!'" Pham said Tuesday, a day after Bui's first bout.

Bui and Vincent Lumacad, also 17, made history this week as the first to compete in karate for Team NT at the Canada Games. P.E.I., which is hosting the games this week and next week, requested karate be added to the roster of sports teams would compete in this year.

The young men have been with the Wado Karate Club in Yellowknife since the ages of seven and 10, respectively.

"The competition so far has been really fun," Bui said Tuesday. He's met new friends and athletes from across Canada, and seen new techniques and styles.

Team NT
Team NT

But karate isn't just about technique. It's a way of life that Bui said teaches him discipline and how to work hard.

"It is important that in the future [if] I want to do something, I know I have the ability to pursue it and keep concentrating on it, and force myself to do it and finish it," Bui said.

Reinstated after judges made wrong call

That discipline and concentration has already come into play at the tournament, where Bui faced a rough start during Monday's kata, an event where athletes perform solo before a panel of judges. They're scored on technique, athleticism, speed and the spirit with which they move.

Judges initially disqualified Bui, thinking he had performed a different form of kata than he said he would. Coach Heather Fidyk, who is the president of Karate Alberta, formally protested the disqualification and a review of the video showed Bui had performed what he said he would.

In the end, Bui placed ninth and Lumacad placed 11th.

"It's the first time that these two athletes have competed at this level of a competition, ever, so definitely the little fish in a big pond. And they did exceptional," said Fidyk.

Team NT
Team NT

On Tuesday, Lumacad competed in kumite, which involves sparring against someone. He won his first match against Saskatchewan and lost subsequent matches by a slim margin to Alberta and Quebec.

Lumacad said being able to compete on a national level has been a great experience so far.

"I was nervous, but that's a natural thing ... so I think I did well to temper those nerves, temper that fear in me and I just go out and do my best. And I think I did pretty well," he said.

"Just being in this atmosphere of competition and karate, and other people who are like-minded in the sport, is amazing."

With his match over, Lumacad said he's now focused on supporting Bui, who is competing again Thursday.

The two are joined in P.E.I. by their karate instructor, Sensei Masaya Koyanagi, who has trained them both since they were little.

Masaya Koyanagi/Yellowknife Wado Karate Club
Masaya Koyanagi/Yellowknife Wado Karate Club

He said he had worried about whether his club would be up to national standards, given how isolated they are in Yellowknife.

Lumacad and Bui made those worries disappear.

"They've been training a lot," he noted. "I was worried about their skills compared to the others, but once I came to the national tournament, I am certain that our club is not far from the national level."

A Grade 2 teacher arrives

The games involve more than 3,600 participants, competing between Feb. 18 and March 5, as well as many fans.

Kristie Strunk, who used to teach in Yellowknife and now lives in Moncton, N.B., is one of them. She came across a Facebook post from Team NT and recognized the names of two Grade 2 students who used to be in her class.

Early Monday morning, she jumped in the car and drove nearly two hours to watch them compete.

Submitted by Kristie Strunk
Submitted by Kristie Strunk

"I was really impressed, especially for the fact that they've never really been in major competitions," she said.

Both athletes were shocked to see a teacher they hadn't seen in a decade, especially Lumacad.

"I told him how proud I was of everything they've been doing," Strunk said. "His comment back to me was, 'Well, teachers like you make [us] who we are.' … It just melts the heart, as a teacher."

The road to the Canada Games

Lumacad's mother, Angie Viloria, has been watching the competition from Yellowknife.

She's the one who first alerted the club that karate would be at the Canada Games this year — and that there was a time crunch if they wanted to send anyone to compete.

"Vincent was so excited. He was jumping up and down," she said of the moment her son found out he would be going to the games.

She said she originally wanted to put him in martial arts for the fitness aspect. He's moved up in the ranks of the club over the years, now has his black belt and has also been helping to teach younger kids.

"He's said it himself — he's learned discipline, loyalty, respect, hard work, to set personal goals, to focus," Viloria said.

"I really do think he has all those traits. He's really, really good at those things, so I'm pretty lucky that way."

Pham said her hope is that more families and youths will get involved with the karate club.

"We need more people in the club, and we want everyone to [be] able to one day have that experience," she said.