By Danny Coakley, Special to the Telegram & Gazette
Posted Jul 28, 2019 at 7:52 PMUpdated Jul 28, 2019 at 7:53 PM
WESTBORO — After taking first place at the USA National Karate Championships and Team Trials from July 11-14 in Chicago, Westboro’s Nisha Balaji will head to Ecuador next month to compete at the 2019 Junior Pan American Karate Championships. The successful summer for Balaji is the culmination of a competitive schedule and over six years of commitment.
Balaji competed as part of Westboro’s MassDojo National Karate Team, and was tops in her division and earned the No. 1 seed to compete for the junior team at the Pan American Karate Championships.
“I feel really proud to be part of US team and to represent Massachusetts, MassDojo, Sensei Eric Rossini and all my teammates to help me improve every day and win the tournament,” said the 12-year-old Balaji, who will compete in the event held from Aug. 26-Sept. 2. “All my friends were cheering so loud for me when I was in the ring — that really kept me going.”
Rossini said MassDojo has sent a student to the Junior Nationals every year since 2016, and Balaji could be something special. She was the youngest competitor in her division (ages 12-13), as she turned 12 just before the tournament began.
“She’s regularly here, I’d say probably four days a week,” Rossini said. “Which, for somebody competing at that level, is right on target. And we start training in January for this particular competition. We pick 43 kids on the team, and they train a lot on Sundays for the special trainings that they do.”
Balaji started when she was 6 because her father, Ashwin Venkatesan, was taking lessons from Rossini and initially signed her up so she could develop as a person.
“We primarily started Nisha in karate because she was a little bit more of a shy, reserved type of a girl,” Venkatesan said. “And we felt karate would help build confidence in her and secondarily, for self-defense.”
Balaji, who started at MassDojo in 2015, said that’s exactly what happened to her.
“Karate has given me a lot of confidence,” she said. “It teaches me self-defense and being respectful. It has also helped me not be as shy and to speak up for myself.
Balaji quickly developed as a pupil as she was able to take home the gold medal in kumite (sparring) USANKF Nationals from 2015-17, took home the bronze last year, and then reclaimed the gold this summer.
Although she constantly wins, her sensei believes she can improve in some aspects of the sport. Balaji and Rossini work closely to create game plans going into each match, studying tape to improve her abilities.
“The thing with Nisha is she is an incredible kicker. She has been exceptional,” Rossini said. “She keeps winning every year with her feet which is unusual, but it’s her talent, and it’s significantly better than the other girls. But I have been pushing her to get better with her hands.”
Balaji agreed there was plenty to work on before heading to Ecuador.
“I need to continue to work my skills,” Balaji said. “As I work on becoming an expert in extending my punches, improving my timing and becoming more faster, I will have more techniques to score with.”
Her support team was proud of what she has done so far but knows if she wants to come out on top, there is still much work that needs to be done.
“This is a very serious endeavor, and people study each other,” Rossini said about the level of competition and coaching in the tournament. “There is a lot of video studying that’s done by parents and coaches. So if you’re not reinventing yourself coming up with something new, someone will figure out a way to beat you.”
While the gold medal at the USA Nationals was nice, the better prize may have come from the deal she made with her parents. Balaji was promised a puppy if she won.
“The funny story was she wins her final match and the first thing she comes to me and tells me, ‘I’m getting my dog,’ ” Venkatesan recollects. “Not ‘I won gold’ (but), ″I’m getting my dog.′ ”
The family is waiting until returning from Ecuador to get the dog, and Balaji can hardly wait.