Vanily Ngarambe vividly recalls the first time he stepped on a tatami (karate fighting mat) at a bigger international arena.
By and large, the 21-year-old marvels at the lessons picked from a momentous defeat during the 7th African Cadet and Junior Karate Championships in Tunisia in August 2013.
His first match was against Algeria’s Abdelatif Benkhaled, an opponent of the same weight and age category. It did not last more than 82 seconds. In Kumite (fighting), matches last no more than three minutes.
“It was the first tough match I ever played. Before then, I never understood how our toughest players could be defeated,” Ngarambe says, noting that even the regional Zone Five tournament held in Burundi in 2012 was “nothing” compared to this bigger arena.
Before the match begun, Ngarambe had a chance to carefully observe Benkhaled. He was confident that he could overwhelm the slightly shorter Algerian but then, the unexpected happened, he recalls. The Algerian’s domination was so thorough.
“We got on the tatami and the guy (his opponent) roared, slapped his face, and suddenly turned ferociously red. He became a beast.”
On Ngarambe’s first move, the Algerian swiftly darted, countered and threw him down. Like most untested fighters, Ngarambe’s emotions then took over, with the expected consequences. He was punished – both by the opponent and the referee – for every blunder.
Despite his thrashing, Rwanda qualified for another world tourney – the November 2013 World Junior Karate Championships, in Spain. Again, lady luck did not smile at Ngarambe.
In the initial draws, he faced a Japanese in the first match and an Egyptian in the second. Both countries boast of some of the toughest fighters in the world.
Down but not out
Despite everything, the budding Rwandan Karate champion is convinced that the country’s youth have both the spirit and talent required to conquer the world Karate arena.
About, the defeats in big-games, he says, they have been a learning experience.
“The two competitions helped me so much. I realised there is nothing better that opponents have other than the vital big-game experience. They have been defeated many times and know how to come from behind and win a match,” Ngarambe explains.
He added: “For us, we could panic. Once an opponent got two points, one would become emotional and start making mistakes while the opponent earns more points.”
Ngarambe says, he can now manage a tougher opponent, quickly regain points and win.
“I am ready to handle any opponent of any size and from any country. Even if I don’t win, I can play against anyone.”
Locally, under the guidance of experienced international instructors, the martial arts sport is gradually getting better.
Conquering the world
Rwandan Karate is making forward leaps and Ngarambe is not shy to send a warning to opponents on the world stage. “We are coming to get you,” Ngarambe says, warning future opponents not to underestimate Rwandan Kumite competitors.
“If we keep on getting brilliant coaches such as the one we have now (Russian Ruslan Adamov), we are headed for better things.
There are many talented kids in this country. We have lots of untapped talent. Karate, in competitions, is about fighting and we have what it takes, the will and spirit, to fight. Good coaches also help.”
Ngarambe undoubtedly feels “enormously proud” to wear a Karate-Gi (Karate uniform) with the national flag print, whenever he represents the country. Though in local and regional tournaments he is one of the most feared opponents, he is aiming higher.
A child’s love for the sport
It was in 2006 when he started secondary school that he really started getting involved in real Karate. But before then, at a tender age of six, he had got inspired by his elder cousin Eric Remera.
Whenever his cousin got up to do his early morning workouts, a young Ngarambe would silently tag along to watch.
“It just looked so impressive. The way he dressed and the things he would do in training. Every day, I just sat and watched, thrilled. All his friends who visited at home were Karatekas. All they could talk about was Karate. And I just sat with them, enjoying every moment,” he recalls.
Looking back, Ngarambe says he mainly has two people to thank for his achievements. One is his friend and cousin Eric Remera, who introduced him to the sport.
Next is Didier Gaga Rukorera, assistant coach of the Huye-based UR Karate team, who molded him into the fine Kumite competitor he is.
The vice national team captain and captain of the junior national team, is also a hardworking first year student at the University of Rwanda (UR) Huye campus studying for a degree in Water and Environmental Engineering.
Ngarambe now hopes to summon up the form required to make it to the national team that will tousle it out for medals in the November World Karate Federation (WKF) Championships, in Germany.