I met Natalia Hill at the US Koushu tournament last year in 2010. Having had lost to her team mate Robert Beaver in an elimination bout, I had joined the Peaceful Dragon school in some post-tournament drinks at the bar to celebrate Natalia’s and other team mates successful competing. Natalia had won first place in Women heavy weight Lei Tai in 2010. I was interested in that the school was a martial arts school that embraces the Chinese “internal” styles of Taijiquan, Baguazhang, and Xingyiquan as well as Chang Tung Shen’s style of Shuai Chiao. In 2011, Natalia not only won first place in defending her heavy weight Lei Tai title, she also got first place in women’s fixed and moving step push hands.
Q: welcome Natalia, what other competition awards have you been able to attain in which I may have missed?
I also compete at our local CACMA (Carolinas Association of Chinese Martial Arts) tournaments. I’ve won several push-hands medals, and a couple of forms and sparring medals. I also had a single Lei Tai match at the 2011 spring CACMA tournament, which I won. I’ve done a lot more Tai Chi competitions than anything else.
Q: how many total Lei Tai fights have you done? What is your current fight record?
I’ve had four Lei Tai fights, three at the USKSF tournament in Baltimore, one at our local CACMA tournament. My current record is 4-0, 3 wins by TKO. I’m just a beginner in this area of the arts.
Q: Can you discuss some of the training you and your team do in preparation for competing in Full contact fighting?
I train a little bit with Robert and Carrie from The Peaceful Dragon, and a few other people here and there, but mostly I train on my own. I work out for 30-60 minutes in the morning either in my neighborhood or at the gym, depending on my work schedule. This is a mix of cardio, strength training and stretching. Then in the evenings I work on bag rounds and fighting drills while my daughter is in her kung fu class. After her class, I will either take a class or go do more training on my own. I try to get in at least two sparring sessions a week until the couple of weeks before the tournament. Then I spar less and work on power more. We try not to tear each other up too much in our sparring sessions, so I need time to focus on hitting things as hard as I can. I also mix in some bag throwing and working target strikes on our head-torso bag. I do a lot bag rounds, sometimes cycling between hitting the hanging heavy bag and throwing another heavy bag.
Q: What style of Taijiquan do you practice?
I study Ch’ang-Shih Tai Chi Ch’uan, created by Great Grandmaster Ch’ang Deng Sheng.
Q: what parts of taijiquan do you think have helped you in fighting?
The basic principles of having a relaxed body, good root, and sensitivity to your opponent’s movements provide the foundation of my practice. I’ve learned how to stay relaxed while fighting and have a high degree of flexibility, allowing me to be fairly agile for my size. I also have pretty good root, which helps me deliver really strong punches and keeps me up on my feet in a clench. By staying aware of my opponent’s movements and positioning, I’m able to avoid taking a lot of hits and will often see the weakness in their guard, allowing me to deliver more effective strikes.
Q: Do you think Tui Shou (Push hands) practice has helped you in Lei Tai fighting? If yes can you explain?
It definitely helps me fight. I use my push hands training to help me move my opponent around on the platform. The attention to root really helps me keep my feet planted on the ground when someone tries to throw me or pull me down when they fall. When they get too close, I’ll find an opening and shove them back out into range of my more powerful strikes. I also use my push hands competition experience to help me remain aware of our position on the Lai Tai platform, and then shove my opponent off of the platform when the edge is near. I’ve won two fights in the first round this way, and almost a third. The rule is that if someone gets pushed cleanly off the platform three times in a round, the fight is over.
Q: Can you discuss your thought on competition in push hands though many Tai chi people may put down push hands as competition?
It’s just a fun way of practicing the Tai Chi principles, whether you want to learn to use them in fighting or just for enjoyment and good health. In competition, people all too often get consumed by their ego and it loses many of the Tai Chi qualities as they try to use just force to dominate their opponent. When both people really are trying to stay light and aware and only apply force when there is an opening for it, then it’s ideal and you can see some good Tai Chi principles in action. I’ve had several really good push-hands matches and a few ridiculous shoving matches at various tournaments.
Q: Your teacher Sifu Sbarge and I have chatted on Facebook several times, and I discovered he and I both trained with Bagua master Sifu Park Bok Nam. Is there any Bagua or Xingyi training that has helped you in fighting?
I’m still working on learning our Pa Kua system, so I wouldn’t say that I use a lot of it in the ring. I’ve spent a bit more time with our Xing Yi system. It becomes useful when my opponent is in close to me, giving me short powerful strikes against them before I go back to push hands and shove them out into kicking range.
Q: How do you mentally prepare for a fight?
I do a lot of visualization, picturing myself knocking my opponent out with a variety of strikes, seeing myself get hit and just shrugging it off, imagining the final call of the ref declaring me the winner. When I’m in the final moments before the fight, I just try to clear my mind of doubts and remember my basic plan of attack. Once I’m on the platform, I push all of that out and just try to be in the moment. At that point, it’s all instinct and muscle memory, conscious thought only slows you down. I just want to see my targets and hit them as hard and often as possible, while not taking any bad hits.
Q: I assume since you’re a mother and hold a full time job, you have to have to create a balance of training and regular life. Like myself, we are not getting younger and nearing retirement to fighting age. How do you manage it? What is your day job?
I’m a security/software engineer in IT for a large corporation. My team is scattered all over the country, so we all work from home. This saves me a lot of time that I can put into my training. It also allows me to spend small amounts of time exercising and practicing when work is slow that I wouldn’t be able to do at the office. My daughter has been taking classes through the children’s program at The Peaceful Dragon for the past seven years, so she feels right at home at our kwoon. The layout of the school is such that we have a large area in the center of the school with tables and chairs, often referred to as the “tea-house”, with training studios, locker rooms and offices exiting into this area. While I’m in class or a training session, she’ll usually hang out with her friends in the tea-house, practice in an empty studio, read, or use the wi-fi on her laptop. When there are tournaments or school activities, she’s always involved in some way, since I’m always involved. She really likes to compete in tournaments and go to the various activities. The school is the center of our social lives, and it’s a lifestyle that works well for us.