Monday, December 11, 2017

Strong Pasco contingent heads to world karate championships

Yvar Bajala tried other sports growing up in New Port Richey, from soccer to basketball, even some volleyball.

But Bajala, 19, gave karate a shot when he was 7 years old, mostly because he saw a friend do it and thought it was cool.

Pretty soon, he was hooked.

"That's the start of this whole journey," the River Ridge High graduate said.

Bajala's journey continues this week in Melbourne, Australia, where he and five other locals are competing in the World Karate Confederation Championships, Thursday through Sunday.

"It's pretty hard to put into words," Bajala said. "It's an amazing feeling."

Bajala joins fellow New Port Richey residents Austin Stone, 17, Rae Hayward, 40, and Kayla Davenport, 15, as well as Arion Nieves, a 15-year-old from Bayshore Christian, on the 67-member U.S. team. To qualify, they had to finish among the top two in their age groups at the American Athletic Union nationals.

And though all are black belts and some have competed internationally, this championship — which is held every other year — is like their Super Bowl, said Cindy Ingram, co-owner of Ingram Karate Center in New Port Richey.

"This is their shot," said Ingram, whose husband, John, is the U.S. coach. "They're top in the nation and this is their chance to win something big."

Most have been training since they were kids, practicing several days a week and competing in a handful of tournaments a year; Bajala, Stone, Hayward and Davenport work out at Ingram's, Nieves at Mark Pinner Karate in Tampa. Bajala, now a student at Pasco-Hernando Community College, is a four-time AAU national champion and was a member of the U.S. team at the tournament two years ago in Italy.

Stone, who is homeschooled and took bronze in Italy two years ago, is tied for the AAU state title with Nieves. Davenport, who attends River Ridge, is in her first international experience.

Then there's Hayward, who started karate later in life but is the group's inspiration. She competes in the 19-34 age group and held her own against competitors half her age.

"She's had so many surgeries, been sick many times, but she keeps going," Bajala said. "Her nickname is Godzilla."

The area competitors traveled to Australia on Sunday, giving them a few days to acclimate and train before the tournament. Ingram said they will be there 11 days, allowing for some sightseeing.

To cover the expensive trip the group did fundraisers, from car washes to a spaghetti dinner and golf tournament, and held a "Fight Night," sparring in a makeshift ring for a donation. Most wore costumes, with Bajala and Stone going the extra mile.

"We dressed up as ring girls," Bajala said. "It was pretty awesome."

Bajala said all the work — and weird wardrobes — was worth the experience, where they get to represent their country and go for gold.

"This," Ingram says, "is the big one."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow him @TBTimes_JSmith.

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