Leaping into wushu

University of Maryland has a dedicated team of martial artists

February 17, 2007|By Taya Flores | Taya Flores,sun reporter

Sujal Bista moves across the gym floor in acrobatic spins and low leg sweeps and with loud hand claps. He lifts his 130-pound body off the ground and turns both legs for an aerial kick.

Back on the gym floor four months after surgery for a torn Achilles tendon, he practices his moves at the University of Maryland, College Park until he is soaked in sweat and exhausted.

"I'm going to do wushu until my body can't handle it anymore," the 25-year-old software engineer from Rockville says.

Popularized by action movie star Jet Li, wushu has swept across college campuses, including the University of Maryland, which boasts the largest collegiate wushu team on the East Coast, and today hosts the National Wushu Collegiate Tournament. Ten to 12 teams are expected to compete.

But the sport's popularity isn't confined to the college campus. Last year, 55 countries competed in the eighth World Wushu Championship in Hanoi, Vietnam. Next year's Summer Olympics will feature wushu as exhibition sport for the first time. And in local martial-arts schools, students are learning the sport, as well.

While encompassing a variety of Chinese martial-arts styles and philosophies -- some thousands of years old -- wushu as a sport is fairly new. It started in China in the 1950s, and Chinese martial-arts schools introduced the sport to the United States.

Wushu attracts people because of its aesthetic appeal; as an exhibition sport, it has moves that aim to please the eye with low stances and high kicks, acrobatic jumps and circular movement. It's a martial art akin to kung fu with gymnastics, says Yuval Zohar, president of the University of Maryland's team, Terpwushu.

The 19-year-old has always been interested in martial arts "because it looks really cool." He watched kung fu films but had no idea that the martial art behind the films was real, he says. "It was something that I always wanted to do, so when I came to college and found out that I could do it, I thought this is exactly what I've been waiting for."

Zhibo Lai joined the University of Maryland team in 2002, when it began.

"I went to the collegiate competition in California at Stanford University, and it was the first time I saw all these cool forms, weapons and how good these people were; that's what did it for me," Lai says.

Three to four times a week, more than 20 people come to the practices in the matted gym room at the college's Human and Health Performance Pavilion.

During one practice, Jeremy Bellucci yells a visceral "owwww" before making a series of strong, quick punches from a squatting position and jumping into a flip where he lands on his back, then jumps back onto his feet. He moves his short, muscular body like a powerhouse in a style called "southern fist," drawing the movement from his back and shoulders for a quicker, more intense punch.

Bellucci says he was initially attracted to wushu because of the sport's beauty, but then he discovered it helped him relax. "These are the hours of the week where you can only think of one thing, it's active meditation," he says.

Plant-science major Donna Pahl perfects her tornado kick at the practice -- kicking her left leg behind the right and unwinding her petite body in the air with outstretched arms, creating an aerial tornado.

The 20-year-old loves the limelight and how wushu competitions are more about performance than fighting. She flaunts her wushu gear around campus, wearing her bright-red team jacket decorated with Chinese characters and the name Terpwushu.

In a black case, she carries a staff that is used in some wushu routines and people on campus notice. "There's a buzz," she says. "When people see me carrying my long staff they ask, `Wow, are you doing wushu?' Before people would ask what is wushu? Now, they've heard of it."

Wushu classes

Goh's Kung Fu

6313 Harford Road

Baltimore

410-444-6666 gohskungfu.com

Omei-Wushu

9725 Traville Gateway Drive

Rockville

240-645-2014 omeiwushumd.com

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