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by Claire Allison

In the 15 years Vardi Culling has been learning Kyokushin Karate, she suspects she has been one of her instructor’s hardest students.

“I needed to understand everything, why we do it, what for .. it’s made him a better instructor.”

Last month, come grading day when the Timaru woman gained her second black belt (ni dan), her sensei – and husband – Neil, could not have been prouder.

Neil Culling has been studying martial arts for years.

Kyokushin Karate is his third discipline, and he is now the sensei for the Kyokushin Aoraki Timaru dojo.

“So I’ve been watching him for years .. and then my son started, and I thought, maybe. So I went and had a go,” Vardi Culling said.

All but one of their family of six have practised karate.

She said she felt totally unco-ordinated at the start and said she was not a confident person, but she slowly moved up the ranks, gaining her black belt six years ago.

She was in no rush to go for her second black belt.

“You used to have to wait for five years, then three, then two, but mentally, I wasn’t ready.

“I’d seen too many gradings, and you get bashed. It was terrifying for me. I’m a giant wuss, really.

“The fighting side of it petrifies me.

“But either you stay still, or move on.”

Vardi Culling travelled to Huntly for the gruelling six-hour grading, starting with the basics, kata (pre-arranged fight patterns), self-defence and stamina.

“By the time the fights come around, you’re drained.

“You have 30 fights of a minute and a-half, so, with short breaks, it’s an hour’s worth of solid fighting.

“The whole thing is designed to break you .. but not mentally break you, to prove you can fight, no matter what, and not ever quit.”

Apart from the bruises taking weeks to fade, she says it doesn’t seem real.

“I was doubting it right until the time I got on the plane.

“I thought, I’m not at the weight, or fitness I need to be, I’m not where I could be.

“It was a big step out of my comfort zone.”

She had decided if she failed, she would not go back to try again.

“As you get older, it gets physically harder.”

Now, she’d like to see other women reach the same level.

“There aren’t enough females in it. I’d love to get a female student to black.”