Already a karate champion, Nicole Steinhagen sets her sights on the Olympics.
Since the age of six, Nicole Steinhagen has been practicing her forms in the airy studio of Fournier’s Leadership Karate Center in outer Portland. Now 21, the pint-sized spitfire is a world champion, a member of Team USA Karate, and a 2020 Tokyo Olympic hopeful.
Steinhagen has always loved to compete, and for a few years she channeled that desire into beauty pageants. She would get dressed up, walk across the stage, and talk about her favorite subjects in school. Then, she’d change into her karate gi for the talent portion. For a few minutes of the pageant, as she ran through the forms she had honed through years of careful study, the teenage girl was truly, one- hundred percent herself.
But beauty pageants weren’t the best place to showcase her skills. After comforting her following a loss, Steinhagen’s longtime mentor and teacher, Tony Fournier, urged her to trade in pageants for karate tournaments. “I saw her at the pageant and I said, ‘If they don’t see what you can do, you have to make a change,’” Fournier recalls.
It’s not that beauty pageant judges are clueless. Few people are able to adequately assess Steinhagen’s work, simply because it is so highly specialized and unique. Karate forms—detailed patterns of kicks, punches, blocks, and other movements—are hard. They’re intricate, graceful, and precise. They are also forceful, albeit in a polished and refined way. An uninformed observer may think she is watching a dance, a series of choreographed moves that are designed to please the eye. But the forms are more than that. They’re combat techniques that have been perfected over hundreds of years. When I ask Steinhagen to demonstrate a form, her face creases in a big smile. She takes her place on the mat, and that smile disappears. She becomes instantly serious as her legs step out at impossible angles, her hands slice through movements like blades of a windmill, and her entire body hums with potent energy.
When she’s done, she sits down to explain what I’ve just witnessed. That was Spider Hands, a classical form (competitions have two categories, traditional forms and creative, and Steinhagen competes in both). I tell her I can see the spider’s influence in the way her legs crept across the floor, and she shares the history behind her favorite type of physical expression. Centuries ago, she says, “all karate forms were taught underground in Japan. All the people had their weapons taken away, so they were forced to use farm tools.” She points to a group of lethal-looking blades attached to poles. “That’s why we use staffs, or tools that look like rice cutters. Because that’s what they had,” she says. The balletic appearance of the forms is not accidental. “They taught the forms as dances, so that you couldn’t tell they were fighting,” she says. The early karate masters “were constantly underestimated.”
The idea of being underestimated is one that comes up repeatedly, because it’s very easy to misjudge this young woman. Steinhagen is slight, petite, and looks far younger than her 21 years. She has a melodic voice and a friendly, even bubbly manner. She could choose to downplay these aspects of her physicality and personality, but she doesn’t. “I love to be underestimated,” she says. “I’ll walk into a karate tournament with a little mascara on, and go sit in my ring and stretch. Then, when I start with my forms, I’ll look at the audience. I see the faces people make. We do yells in karate, and mine are big for being small.” Sometimes, she likes to look at pictures from tournaments just to see the reaction of people in the background. “People stereotype me all the time,” she says. “And I love to break that stereotype. I like being not-normal more than anything. I never want to be normal.”
Not-normal for Steinhagen means being able to execute moves that few others can even attempt, like a Scorpion Kick, in which she lifts her leg backwards, over her head, and kicks her opponent with the sole of her foot. It’s a move developed by karate champion Chloe Bruce, and it requires a truly astounding amount of flexibility and strength. But moves like that are hard on the body. “Often, I see karate athletes who are her age, and they’re already done,” Fournier says. “Luckily for us, she’s healthy. She’s kept her flexibility and stayed strong. I think she’s going to keep getting better every year, and that’s a cool thing.” As Steinhagen improves, so do her chances of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At this point, it’s just a matter of getting her in front of the right people, Fournier says. “As with many things, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Even when she talks about the possibility of achieving international fame and Olympic
gold metals, Steinhagen stays grounded. That’s because the most important part of her karate practice isn’t competition; it’s teaching. On the day I meet her, she has just finished a lesson with her “mini-me,” a 10-year-old girl named Emma. Today, Emma needed personal guidance more than she needed a karate lesson, and Steinhagen provided both. “I’ve gotten way more out of karate than I could ever imagine,” Steinhagen says. “I’ve learned focus, self-discipline, respect, and confidence.” Now, she wants to pass those on to the next generation of students. In addition to teaching, she volunteers through her church, works every summer as a camp counselor, and is currently studying to become a social worker. “This community raised me,” she says. “Each generation fosters the next generation. I believe that.” And with that, she’s back to working her forms on the mat.