Faith Lutheran sophomore’s goal: making Olympic karate team

Gianella “Gia” Mazza, 15, has punched and kicked her way to a national championship in karate.

Crowned the winner for her age group in the 2017 USA Karate Nationals, held mid-July in Greenville, South Carolina, she is eyeing the next prize: a world title at the World Karate Federation’s World Karate Championships in Spain this October.

A win there would almost assure her a spot on the 2020 Olympic team in Tokyo. It will be the first time the Olympics will recognize karate as a sport. Gia only picked up the sport five years ago; her father, Robert, can pinpoint the day an innocent remark led to her competing internationally.

“We were on our way to soccer practice and she saw the dojo and said, ‘Hey, I want to try that one day,’” he said.

She began competing in her second year of training as an orange belt and went to nationals. There, she won back-to back golds.

Gia said she was “too young to feel pressure. I was there for the fun of it.”

She has progressed through the belt colors and Nina, her mother, recalled watching her daughter take her black-belt test this year. That day, Gia faced boys and an adult who were all black-belt holders.

“That was the most aggressive fighting I’ve ever seen my daughter face. She was really getting beat up, getting slammed,” she said. “But she kept getting up, every hit she took. It was difficult to watch.”

Gia is 5-foot-4 and competes at 114 pounds. She turns 16 this month.

Competitions have taken her to Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas and Southern California. She went to South Carolina in July, not expecting to outshine everyone. But with each round, she kept advancing. It boosted her confidence.

“After my first fight, I’m thinking, ‘I’m competing against 16-year-olds, and I’m winning,’” she said.

She credited the direction she got from her coaches. Before she took to the mat, they would advise her on the style of fighter she was about to face and give her a game plan. One girl, for example, was labeled a “counter-er,” someone who threw a block or a punch in response to her opponent’s initiation action. To thwart her, Gia was advised to fake a punch, wait half a beat for the girl to react, then come in strong with a true punch. There was also Gia ’s own competitive nature working in her favor.

“When I get on the mat (at a competition), there’s this rush of ‘I’m going to beat you.’ It doesn’t matter whether I started (the sport) later than most … Most of it is mental games. You have to be tough. You can’t back down or show fear in the ring,” she said.

She has taken her share of hits. One time, she was kicked into a wall. Another time, she suffered a stress fracture in her leg from taking a kick. She has a permanent scar on her neck from an opponent’s fingernails.

Gia practices three days a week, usually for two-hour sessions. Her coach Hiroshi Allen, owner of Hiro Karate and a seven-time national champion, said her athleticism and ability to focus made her one of those people who could be good in any sport.

“She’s pretty well-rounded athlete with her soccer, so she came in with a good athletic background,” Allen said. “She just needed to learn the sport. Karate is an ambidextrous sport. We use both hands and feet; you have to use both sides of your body. And you have an opponent in front of you, so while you’re adjusting your body, you have to adjust to your opponent’s also.”

Gia will switch to a new coach determined by the Olympic organization. She is on track to be one of 12 girls who will represent the United States. The trip to Spain is expected to cost about $7,000; the family has started a gofundme account to help raise the money.

Gia, a Faith Lutheran sophomore, is considering a career as a physical therapist.

Contact Jan Hogan at jhogan@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2949.

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