Taylor Robinson (bottom) and Rylie Marchand

Taylor Robinson (bottom) and Rylie Marchand

Unity invades coast

Don’t let their youthful innocence fool you – Taylor Robinson and Rylie Marchand mean business.

Spend a minute on the mat with either one and chances are they will have you screaming “uncle!” in multiple languages. The nimble nine-year-olds scamper and roll across the floor like a pair of spider monkeys during a Saturday-afternoon grappling session at Unity Martial Arts.

“I don’t want any tears today,” joked head instructor Raja Lee.

He added, grinning: “They’re as tough as can be.”

The duo has been practising four days a week as it prepares for the Tiger Balm Internationals, a multiple-competition martial arts tournament this weekend at the Capilano University Sportsplex in North Vancouver.

As the largest amateur competition in Western Canada, it features point fighting, continuous sparring, padded weapons sparring, san shou, mixed martial arts (MMA), Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kung-fu, karate, tae kwon do, freestyle grappling and modified pankration.

Robinson, who has trained in martial arts since age six, won two gold medals at last year’s Tiger Balms. This year, the BX Elementary student plans to compete in grappling, youth MMA and pankration, which is similar to MMA, but with no striking on the ground.

To ensure their safety, the younger competitors wear protective gear like shin guards, head gear and gloves, and they can only strike the head gear, not the face. Unlike the violence seen in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), they must show a controlled level of contact when striking.

“They have more limited contact for kids,” noted Lee.

Robinson, who also plays soccer, fancies herself as more of a ground specialist.

“I like doing submissions. Right now my favourite move is the triangle (choke),” she said.

“I work on strikes and ground skills. It helps me be more fit.”

Marchand has her little brother, Kobe, to thank for her introduction to martial arts a year-and-a-half ago. He won a gift certificate for some free lesson at Unity while attending the Vernon Sunshine Festival. He was reluctant to go on his own.

“My brother got picked for the free two weeks and he was kind of scared so I went with him and I really liked it,” smiled Marchand, a St. James Elementary student who plays Novice ringette with the Vernon Blue Lightning.

While this will be Marchand’s first visit to Tiger Balms, she already has competition experience, pocketing two golds at last year’s CanAm tournament. She will compete in pankration, san shou (kickboxing with takedowns) and youth MMA in the North Vancouver event.

Lee is impressed by the girls’ sponge-like ability to absorb what he is teaching.

“They surprise me every day,” said the easy-going Lee. “I’ve really enjoyed watching how far they’ve progressed. It’s seeing the joy on their faces every time they do something new, or learn a new technique.

“I like helping them train to get the things they want to achieve.”

Other Unity members competing at Tiger Balms include Mia Robinson, six, Kobe Marchand, seven, Clark Lejume, seven, Ross Lejume, 11, Trevor Feeney, 14, Zach Anderson, 16, Broden Romanovitch, 16, Brody Raffen, 21, Eric Sundquist, 22, Corey Killborn, 24, and Cara Funke, 22.

Unity Martial Arts, located across from the Phoenix Steakhouse on 30th Avenue, currently has about 60 members. It is open 5-9 p.m., Monday to Friday, with scheduled weekend classes.