Sophia Miguel and Mayumi Sripathmarajah know how to thrive under pressure.
Shelves full of medals the Simcoe martial artists have earned at regional and national taekwondo tournaments can attest to that.
But the World Karate and Kickboxing Commission’s (WKC) world championships are at another level.
“There are a thousand people there and they’re all watching you, and there’s people screaming from different countries. So the pressure’s there,” said Sripathmarajah, 13.
“I’ve always been a mess” at competitions, added Miguel, 14.
“Even the local ones, it would just be a lot for me. I would put a lot of pressure on myself, and if I didn’t win, it was like the end of the world.”
Competing for Team Canada at the WKC worlds in Orlando, Fla., in October, the duo summoned the self-discipline and inner calm they have practised over their decade training under coach Dennis Gray at Simcoe Martial Arts.
“And that’s where the mindset comes in, because you have to be able to relax and then focus,” Sripathmarajah said.
“You have to be able to go through the pressure and do what you’re supposed to do.”
Tightening their black belts, the pair blocked out the noise, quieted their nerves and did Simcoe and Canada proud against the best martial artists from around the world.
Competing in their respective age categories, the teens each won gold in Korean forms — an individual demonstration similar to a karate kata — and continuous fighting, where points are accumulated during an uninterrupted two-minute fight.
At her first world championship tournament, Miguel also won a bronze in team continuous fighting, while Sripathmarajah came back from her fourth worlds with gold in points sparring and team continuous fighting, and bronze in open weight sparring.
“Having Mayumi there to tell me about how it was going to be calmed me down a bit,” Miguel said of the months-long wait between qualifying for Team Canada and heading to Florida.
“And having her there when we were competing helped me too.”
At a ceremony at town hall in Simcoe before a December council meeting, Mayor Amy Martin presented Sripathmarajah and Miguel with certificates of merit.
“On behalf of council, I’d like to congratulate you on your exceptional martial arts achievements and thank you for putting Norfolk County on the map in such a positive light,” Martin said.
Gray told The Spectator his two ace students are “completely different” as martial artists.
“Mayumi here, she’s a natural. Right off the bat, she went in there dropping jaws,” Gray said.
“And then you got her,” he said, pointing to Miguel, “who just said, ‘I’ll never give up. I will do it, and that’s all there is to it. Get out of my way.’ And she goes and does it in Florida.”
Gray called Sripathmarajah “the best 13-year-old I’ve ever seen” and praised Miguel’s dedication.
“I’ve never seen anybody work harder,” Gray said. “I’ve never seen anybody so focused on doing it.”
That focus has been there since the beginning and never wavered in either teen, he added.
“Most people quit. They take months off, years off. These two, they never quit at all,” Gray said.
“They’re completely different martial artists, but both of them are amazing. And I am honoured to be part of this.”
Sripathmarajah’s father studied martial arts, and she was eager to try it before starting kindergarten.
“I picked it up real quick when I was little and then I just stuck with it,” she said.
“It trains your body and your mind. It’s one of those sports that needs more recognition, because it’s so hard and technical.”
Sripathmarajah said her martial arts training helps her in everyday life, guided by the five tenets of taekwondo — courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit.
“That’s something we have to live by,” she said. “It teaches you in life that you’re going to have those ups and down and you have to push through it.”
Miguel’s parents enrolled her in taekwondo when she was five as “a fun thing for me to do,” but she said she struggled at first.
“It wasn’t easy for me. I never had any natural talent for it,” Miguel said. “So I really had to work for it a lot.”
That work was fuelled by her “passion” for the sport.
“I love the training, and living by the tenets — that’s always been really important to me,” Miguel said.
Though a grade apart, the pair knew each other at their small elementary school in Simcoe.
“We always wanted to be better than each other,” Miguel smiled.
Thanks to countless hours spent training together, that friendly rivalry quickly turned into a close friendship.
“We support each other through everything, even though we might have to go against each other sometimes in our class,” Sripathmarajah said.
Miguel said Sripathmarajah’s encouragement while training and sparring has boosted her self-confidence.
“And now we’ve gotten so good — to the point where we are the same level — that we work together now,” Miguel said.
“We’ve got to where we are because of each other.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator