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What 14 Days of Intense Martial ArtTraining in Italy Taught Me: Part 1

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

They say hindsight is 20-20 and helps you figure everything out. I typically agree...except this time.

Even with the world’s best pair of granny glasses, I can’t exactly recall what caused me to end up traveling to the northern mountains of Italy to study Traditional Chinese Martial Arts and be the only American student in an awesome group of Dutch martial artists and two birds, a parrot named Merlin and a macaw named Ziggy.

Random, I know.

In retrospect, the story of this journey actually started four years ago in China.

Back in 2018, a handful of incredible martial artists got together and brought a group of people from various martial art backgrounds overseas to train intensely in Henan province at the Shaolin Temple.

Martial Club. A filmmaking group started by two brothers–Brian and Andy Le–as well as their close friend Daniel Mah who are set on preserving and revolutionizing the style of classic Hong Kong Cinema. Over the years, they have since worked on and appeared in Shang Chi, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Wu-Tang Clan: An American Saga, and much more.

Philip Sahagun. A third generation martial artist with international acclaim, Philip has toured the world performing martial arts on stage with Tina Turner, worked as a coach for Cirque du Soleil, made it to the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent, and much more. Specializing in American Kenpo, Kickboxing, Wushu and Shaolin Kung Fu, every performance and coaching session with him is imbued with the legitimacy and experience of a professional martial artist.

Last and far from least, Henny Eleonora. A martial arts expert whose skill is matched only by his humility, unique character, and deep desire to see the traditional arts of China continue to grow and flourish for many more generations. Over time, that deep desire brought Henny traveling across mainland China and Hong Kong to find and train with masters. To date, he has competed in a televised Kung Fu competition with Wu Bin and Donnie Yen as guest judges and also received recognition as an official student under one of the last old Liu He masters, Zhang Shaofu.

Henny is also the man who would go on to host the Academy of Harmony, the incredible Kung Fu camp in Udine, Italy I attended this year.

After meeting in China, we stayed in contact. More important than being a kick-butt martial artist and deep well of wisdom, Henny is an outstanding human being – the type of person who is a blessing to know. When his decision to open a one-of-a-kind Kung Fu camp came up, I immediately knew I would be there no matter what. Besides, who wouldn’t like to get a little taste of ancient China in northern Italy? Fast forward to 2022 and Henny’s long-time vision has come to fruition. Training Expectations and Oversea Experiences I have a confession to make. I went to Italy entirely on blind faith in Henny. I knew very little of what the camp would entail, mostly I just knew that it was divided into two separate training weeks and would be a way to see and support people I love and trust greatly. The first training week, the External Camp, was to focus on Shaolin Kung Fu, Sanda, Shuai Jiao, weapons, and hard traditional conditioning. The second training week, the Internal Camp, was to be the perfect compliment–focusing instead on Tai Chi, Daoyin, Pa Kua, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. I might not have fully known what to expect but I certainly got more than I dared imagine. Immediately after flying into Venice, a problem with transportation reared its head. My ride that had been booked to travel from the airport to the hotel was canceled. After six hours of trying to find a way over, a conversation with Henny’s wife, Ying, brought about a solution– if I could get a bit closer, Henny would be able to pick me up from a bus drop off point and we could ride back to the hotel together from there.

That was the good news. The bad news was, my phone was dying and, with no nearby place to charge my phone, I had to find Henny quickly before losing all communication with him. After getting dropped off at the bus stop near a train station, I waited for Henny to arrive. According to Ying, he would arrive in a bus in roughly ten minutes. With my phone battery dropping by the minute, thoughts began to invade the brain. 10 percent power–erm, what kind of bus did she say it would be? 7 percent power–do I have a backup plan if my phone dies? 5 percent...crap. As if summoned by the dimming phone screen and diminishing hope, I soon get a call. “Justin! Where are you? I’m looking, but don’t see you. Hurry, I probably shouldn’t be parked here!” Well, talk about answered prayers. After a few seconds on the phone, I realize that Henny is on the other side of the block. Taking off to catch him before he has to leave, I soon see a nine-seat white bus and a familiar face waving me down. Already stuffed are a handful of people who would become my closest friends while in the foreign country for the next couple of weeks. Time to get started! The Start of Suffering At night and between training sessions, we would stay at a hotel called Standard Hotel – a place which lived up to its name. Quietly tucked away in a plaza with a supermarket, handful of cafes and restaurants, and a cinema, the hotel was neither underwhelming or overwhelming. We pulled up to it on the first night and it felt like just the right type of place to lay your head down and do little else. Our mornings started sooner than the sun dared rise. By 5:30am each day, we met downstairs and packed into whoever’s vehicle we could for a short drive to a nearby park. Turns out, you can actually condense twelve people in a van that says nine is the max. Our first training session showed how many of us there actually were and how far away from home I was. There were just over twenty of us and, with the exception of Philip Sahagun who was invited over to coach, I was the only American participant. Unsure of what to expect from the coming sessions, we gathered around the coaches for introductions and an opening bow. Placing hand over fist, we all gave a salute and quickly started the inaugural week of training at the Academy of Harmony. Day–Er, I Don’t Know What did we do on our first day? We survived. Philip was our coach for the morning sessions. Before fully formulating a plan, he wanted to see what our overall athleticism and skill level was. Let’s start simply, he proposed. Run. After a quick run four times around a nearby track, he formed us into lines. From these lines, we sprinted, did agility and stance drills, and performed kicks and stretches. After about an hour, he had seen enough and it was time to break for breakfast. We made our way back to the hotel to have a standard breakfast at the Standard Hotel. Walking up the stairs to get to the lobby and past the receptionist was a reserved room with a grab-n-go breakfast buffet. With plates and silverware already holding a spot at a table for each of us, we took our plate to load up on croissants, yogurt, meat, cheese, packaged snacks, and sometimes fruit and veggies. Not a bad breakfast, but certainly one that satisfied us better on the first day than it did our fourteenth consecutive. By 8am, we were back at it again, this time traveling to the actual training camp site. The short drive from the hotel to the hidden away location was filled with views of mountains and maize. Lots and lots of maize. Apparently, corn crops are a big thing in the area. Following a dirt road and pulling up to a modest metal gate, the bus soon parked inside the training area. A paved spot exposed amidst the sea of trees and training equipment–wooden striking poles secured in the ground with gravel, a forest of posts in the ground for Pa Kua stepping, and concrete platforms for stepping all adorned the area.

A growing garden sat in a far corner of the area and across an irrigation canal was a stone slab acting as the makeshift bridge leading to a Kung Fu school with an upstairs living area for the master and an outdoor clubhouse/kitchen combo. According to Henny, the entire area was designed according to the principles of Feng Shui and they are working towards a self-sustainable habitat and agricultural system to provide something fresh and natural to future guests.

Now that Philip had the chance to assess us earlier in the day, it was time for more technical training. For the next three hours, we trained the fundamentals of Shaolin Kung Fu and worked partner drills. The competitive nature in many of us during these tactical games helped overcome the mental fog from waking up early and the muscle fatigue we were beginning to experience.

As the sun beamed down harder, we approached the end of our second training session of the day. By noon, we lifted our tired legs and packed into the cars again, this time taking off to lunch at a nearby restaurant.

From the finish of lunch until 5pm, we had a break. Prioritizing recovery before our final session in the day, we did the natural thing – we closed the curtains of our hotel rooms and took a nap.

When we woke up, it was time to hustle back into the vehicles and head back to the camp. This time, we had two hours of training in Sanda, Chinese kickboxing.

Winstonlico “Lico” Windster, our coach from Amsterdam who was invited to teach this portion, was exactly who you need in a fight coach – someone who can get you started quickly and won’t bite his tongue as he corrects and cracks jokes.

By the time 8pm came, we were drenched in our own sweat to the point that we probably could have filled the irrigation canal with our own collective puddle. After a quick dinner, we mustered just enough energy to shower and crawl into bed.

By the end of the day, our bodies accepted the fact that there would be no reprieve from the physical training.

With the pervasive thought questioning if we would be able to last, we went to bed and prepared to repeat the training for the wee left in the External camp.

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