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Gemma Nguyen: Performing Arts Karate Champion

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Fire in the Heart

“ I love the art form, the imposing style, the discipline, the balancing act, the awesome technique of Performing Arts Karate,” Gemma Nguyen, of Herndon, Virginia, told this reporter. “At seven, I was fascinated at the amazing tricks executed by some kids who were flipping over at Charlie Lee’s Karate. This was in 1994, when I happened to attend a birthday party at Chuck Cheese’s next door. I loved it then, and now at 15, I love it much more and will go to competitions as long as I can.” Gemma weighs 95 lbs and is training to get her third-degree black belt, in a couple of months.
Gemma performs constantly. In mid-January, at a Lunar New Year celebration, she brought the 500 guests to their feet. They clapped until they got an encore performance. They were captivated by the talented little girl who jumps and flips around like a ball of fire — mesmerized by her strength, her flawless performance, her effortless movements, and her flip-over prowess. One of her instructors, Duanne Barpour, once said, “Fly with the eagles, follow your heart, bring joy to your friends.” And Gemma did.
Black-Belt at 10

After three years at Charlie Lee’s, Gemma earned her first-degree black belt at the age of 10 in 1997. She could break wood and concrete like everyone else in Karate, but prederred American free-style performing arts to traditional styles like Wushu, Kung Fu or Taikwondo. She uses the nunchuck weapons, bo staff and kama, among others, but chooses to manipulate the double nunchuck with both hands. The nunchuck is composed of two pieces of wood connected in the middle by a metal string or chain one to two feet long.
“For me, it is more challenging to operate the double nunchuck than other weapons. It requires more coordination, flexibility, and alertness,” Gemma declared. “I twirl them around, twirl them together, release them in mid-air, as high as eight feet, and catch them fast while I flip over with both feet. It is hard and fun.”
Gemma excels in kicking vertically into the air, with one leg straight up. In one motion, she combines an awsome variety of kicks that include 25 fast round kicks, five 40-degree kicks and seven 20-degree kicks, as well as side kicks, hook kicks and twist kicks. Her 4’8” body balancing 30 seconds on one foot like a ballerina, her leopard eyes crash fire, and her voice howls like a tiger. Her precise movements are perfectly choreographed. She is dominant and majestic.
Her high-speed flips are wonderful to watch. In one aerial flip, she flips her pencil-light body over twice like a cartwheel without using her hands to touch the floor. Then she jumps and tucks her body into a ball, rotating backward to land firmly on both feet. Her sideways flips and back fast kicks, spinning and kicking at the same time, have captured the hearts of audiences and judges, who have made her a grand champion in four consecutive years since 1998 at various Martial Arts tournaments. Her scores have been as high as 40.95 out of 50.

Four Consecutive Times Grand Champion

In her brief career, Gemma has received over 200 trophies competing in 12 to 14 tournaments a year in the U.S. and around the world. She regularly attends the annual U.S. Open in Florida, and won a championship prize in France in March 2002 in front of 30,000 spectators. She has also done demonstrations in Guatemala, Brazil, China, Mexico, and Asia. “ I could not have done so well without the good teaching of my instructors, the famous champions Charlie Lee, David Moss, Aron Pingston and Steve Terad.”
In 2000, Gemma joined a five-person team that, synchronizing their movements, achieved a perfect score. In her trademark move, she climbed on top of a team member, did her vertical leg kicks, and flew by two other members, flipping backward and landing on both feet with terrific balance. She was an instant crowd favorite.
Giving credit to others seems to come naturally to Gemma. Despite her achievements and the adulation they have brought her, she projects modesty, politeness, and a happy demeanor. Although she was born in the U.S., her spoken Vietnamese is fluent.
With her busy schedule, does she have time to do anything else? “I also do varsity gymnastics, swimming, acting, cheerleading, drawing and jazz. I currently teach 20 students my age at Charlie Lee’s school.” She is also a member of the prestigious Paul Mitchell JPM Martial Arts center in California, and performs on TV frequently for them, especially on ESPN, which showed her performances twice last year.”
What does she want to do after she finishes high school? “I will go to college. But my dream is to become an actress in Hollywood one day.”