Name: Alwyn Heath
Style: Karate – Kyokushin
Club/s: Hawthorne Leisure Centre: Sun and Wed 18:30-19:30 (juniors) 19:30-21:00 (seniors)
Llantrisant leisure centre: Mon 17.00 18.00 (juniors) 18.00 – 19.00 (disability & SEN)
Years training: 45
Grade: 6th Dan / Shihan
Social media: Facebook
Few can boast fighting one of Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Expendables’ or being voted for Coach of the Year…….twice. Shihan Alwyn Heath can. He has also crammed numerous other awards and experience in his 45 years of dedication to Mas Oyamas Kyokushin Karate.
I went to check out his club at Hawthorne Leisure Centre, Rhydyfelin to speak to Alwyn face to face. I got there in time to see some serious looking juniors going through their paces. Techniques were crisp and discipline was top notch. After a warm welcome, we settled down to talk about how he had got started;
“My brother got me into Karate in 1969. I’m originally from Sengenydd and have always been into my rugby. I loved it but got too many injuries. I dislocated my shoulders and fractured my skull. It can be really dangerous. I really got into Karate and continued while I worked in RAF St Athan. They were very sports orientated there and they used to give me a bit of time off for big competitions and training. They were very supportive.”
Alwyn took the children through line work and Katas. In a break, I asked how he trained when he was younger;
“It is so different in the 1960s. It was extremely rare to see a black belt then. We didn’t know anything different and did some crazy things but I learned from it and now ensure my students do correct safe training. My first instructor was Keith Jenkins, he was a green belt. The only black belt that we were aware of at that time was Steve Arneil from London. We had to travel up there as often as we could just to train and be able to progress. After about three years, a man called Howard Collins (A Welsh lad from Mountain Ash) came back from Japan a 3rd Dan. He was the first non Japanese to ever come in the top three of the all open Japanese Championship and he became my main instructor. The most important thing that I had learned through training is that Karate is a way of life. It instils in you a ‘never give up’ attitude. Without this, Arneil or Collins couldn’t have succeeded against all the odds. It was so much tougher then. It wasn’t uncommon for me to pass out during training. My mind was pushing my body as far as it could go. ”
The children continued working on their techniques under the watchful eye of Alwyn’s wife and co-instructor, Denise Jones. The hall was lively with the children’s Kiai’s as they kicked, blocked, punched and jumped. Alwyn looked proud. At one point of the lesson he grabbed a seat and sat in front of the class while still instructing. I found out later this was due to a long standing knee injury.
“A lot of kids these days are brought up without the proper guidance or without respect. In today’s society, if you can’t get what you want or if it’s not handed to you, then the trend appears to be to just give up. With that attitude early on, how could you expect children to have the drive to go to College, drive to get that job or drive for that promotion? Karate gives clear goals and if you work hard towards them, you could get that trophy or promoted up the belts. Most of the parents have noticed that after starting Karate, their children’s attention level improves and so their school work improves as well as their confidence. The effect is more noticeable on the so called problem children. They become a bit more attentive, more respectful. I keep teaching that you shouldn’t be content with what you got. Aim bigger, aim higher and never give up. This is why even though my knees are knackered, I still train. I do what I can and work around it. I try to lead by example. I learned that from Masutatsu Oyama.
I trained with him back when I was forty three years old, in a week-long camp in Japan. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet him again before he died. He was a very charismatic man. He wasn’t that tall but immensely strong, but he did have that presence. He was also very engaging. He would routinely come over during breakfast for a chat. His favourite topic was to talk about Prince Charles and Dianna as leaders and examples for the country.
I was impressed at Alwyn’s mind set. It was the focus of an elite athlete. I considered how many other instructors would have carried on teaching when their knees finally gave out after years of hard training? Not many I would guess. Alwyn had just simply adapted his teaching method.
The kids eventually had the ‘OK’ they had been waiting for to get kitted up for sparring. They were so eager that they couldn’t do it fast enough. I asked Alwyn about his own competition experiences. He said;
“I used to train by striking walls and trees to build up my punching power. My favourite move was the low kick (because I have never been that flexible) and a sweep. I used to take their back leg. I was a very strong puncher. I had to be because I wasn’t a natural kicker. I accepted that easily as Karate has so many techniques. You have to fight to your own strengths, so I fought to mine. I even broke one guy’s jaw in a Knockdown competition.
Again, it’s that mind set of seeing what you’ve got and using it while developing yourself. In one training camp in Holland, there was a mix up on the campus with the rooms. They ended up giving us tents over five miles away. None of us moaned or complained. We just ran there, trained and then ran back. We didn’t care that we were doing more than the others. It was all training and we loved it.”
I was aware that Alywn had been in some major competitions. He represented Wales in the first ever European Kyokushin knockdown competition as well as representing Britain in the 2nd World Kyokushin Open Weight Comp (where he came 10th out of 180 fighters only after having to be pulled out due to injury). However, I also found out that he had fought against Sylvester Stallone’s Expendable, Dolph Lungren. I asked Alwyn to tell me a bit about it. He said;
“(Laughs) Oh, that was Wales vs Sweden. It was a big event back then so it was held in the Double Diamond Club in Caerphilly. You probably won’t remember it, it’s not there anymore but it was the premier club in Wales and held big events. You had to wear a full suit to get in. Now I’m not a small man but when I faced him, this guy was 6’6” and a hard hitter. He’s a third Dan in Kyokushin and was a very big boy. In the end, he beat me on a decision. He was a brilliant European Champion and used to like kneeing opponents to the face.
Alwyn founded the Pontypridd school of Kyokushin Karate in 1976 and was given the Welsh Karate Governing Body roll of honour award in 2010, for services to Karate. He is a dedicated instructor and has been rewarded for his efforts. In 1996 and 2012, he was awarded the RCT Coach of the Year and has been recognised in the Sports Council of Wales Awards for Coaching Disability students in 2011.
“One of our students, Darlene Foster is competing in the All Styles World Senior Championships in Germany soon. We are very proud of her. She has Autism and a curvature of the spine. I’ve had to devise a training system for her to accommodate her needs and she has worked so hard to achieve. She started when she was 7 years old – the doctors said that by the time she was eleven that she would be in a wheel chair! It’s all about reaching potential. Never give up, train hard. Kyokushin means ‘Ultimate truth.’ In fact, due to Sports council cut backs she had to fund herself to go so myself and a lot of the guys here did some volunteering in Tescos to raise some money to contribute and managed to completely fund it. We all pitch in for one another.”
( Subsequently since the interview – she had won a World Championships Silver Medal!! The first time Wales has won a World Championships medal)
I love teaching the kids, they are the future. They are a blank canvas whereas adults have preconceived ideas. Just watching them progress, not just in Karate but as a person is fantastic, watching their confidence grow. A lot of ex pupils here have become teachers themselves now. When I first started, there were no juniors at all. What I understand is that children are not small adults. You have to communicate with them on their level. My wife says that comes easily to me as I’m such a big kid!
I like to bring a confidence for them to be able to stand up not just for themselves, but for other people. I don’t like bullies. A bully is a coward and the reason they become a bully is that they can pick up if you’re afraid of them. They feed on fear. I found out the hard way in grammar school when I was fourteen. I stood up to the school bully and he beat me. I stood up to him every time he tried it on. It went on for a couple of days but I wouldn’t back down. Eventually, he gave up and wanted to be best friends with me.
You’re never too old to start. My wife didn’t start until she was forty three (At this point, Denise shouts over in warning at potentially mentioning her age – much to the amusement of the class. Alwyn backtracks) . We had a guy training who was seventy two. He loved it. He said that he had always wanted to give it a go but never got around to it. He trained for a little while but then had to stop as his wife told him that it wasn’t dignified for a man of his age to be doing this. It was really sad, he was very disappointed but in the end did what his wife wanted. You should always follow your dreams. You don’t want to be laying on your death bed and thinking ‘I wish I did that’ as there is absolutely nothing you can do about it then, but you can right now.”
Alwyns wife, Denise Jones (58yrs old – but don’t tell anyone) said;
“I met Alwyn about 14 years ago. I met him through his daughter in Boxercise and was invited to a seminar. I thought that it (Kyokushin) was crazy….I’ve got to join! I’ve always been into my fitness. Karate is a way of life for me now and I’ve become a European Judge, so I get to go with Alwyn to the major competitions abroad. I was into the sparring when I first joined and came third in the BKK regional in 2003. The best place we’ve ever been was Japan, that was about three years ago. He got to judge in the World Championships. Unfortunately, I’m not graded high enough yet!”
Alwyn added; “ I’ve been to Japan several times as a competitor, coach and referee at European and World level. In Japan, they treat Karate like how we treat Rugby. The Karate schools are open seven days a week and train several times a day. It’s an amazing place”
The juniors packed up and headed up while the seniors started filing in. There was a good mix of age groups and abilities but all were expected to exceed their best at whatever level they found themselves in. The group split in to two rows and faced each other about two metres apart. They started practicing their techniques on call with the opponent used as a targeting reference point but without being hit. One member of the class shouted the count to ten in Japanese while the others Kiai’d along. The count then went on to the next person. This built up a rhythm and the energy released when the students became in sync was palatable. The repeated techniques built up muscle memory and strength.
The class went on to conditioning. In their two’s, one lay on the floor and completed sit ups, while the other punched them repeatedly to the stomach, bare knuckle. No one was spared.
I spoke to one particular lady who showed incredible tolerance to this exercise – Sharon White (47) a claims advisor from Blackwood;
“I started about ten years ago. I wanted my kids to have discipline, so I brought them here. It does spill over to their personal life. I find that it also keeps me sane. If you’re tired, you come here and it helps you deal with your frustrations. It’s a good atmosphere here. Everyone gets involves and helps, like with competitions and the waterfall training. Waterfall training is so cold but you feel so good when it’s done. It gives you a sense of achievement. My original goal was to reach green belt but with the encouragement of Shihan, I made it all the way to black. I got it about three years ago. It felt fantastic. I thought it was something that I could never achieve. I’ve never done anything like this before. One of the other Sempai’s noticed me training in the car park. So, he hired a squash court for me and helped me train. We all help each other here. We all want to see each other get on. My daughter Kirsty is twenty three and my son Carl is twenty one. They are both 2nd Dan’s at the moment, so he has seen a generation pass through here!”
Alwyn Heath has accomplished much in his years of service and has rightly obtained recognition for his hard work contributing to Welsh Martial Arts and teaching the next generation. He is a man who also knows the importance of injecting a bit of fun into his and others lives. As well as a Karate instructor, he also sometimes works as a DJ! If you would like to visit the club or contact Shihan Heath, please see contacts at the top of the page.