Marianna Sampani has already made a name for herself out on the tatami mats across the world. The trajectory of her life changed as a child, when a friend invited her along to a karate class.

Since then, the now 20-year-old has not let up her dream of becoming one of the best karatekas in the world.

“A lot of people tend to think that once you get your black belt, that’s it, but you really get into it after you get your black belt. I feel like it’s only just started for me. I was ten when I first got it, so it’s a few years back now,” Sampani told Neos Kosmos.

“I just remember thinking that all now that I got my black belt I need to put a lot more work into it; a lot more effort and a lot more time. That’s when you realise you have to take it more seriously. So that’s when I first started doing international competitions and started training for hours and hours every day. I just wanted to, I guess, act as a role model for the younger kids around me. The more you push, the more results you get.”

Sampani’s work ethic truly is second to none, but she acknowledges that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the support of her family and her first Australian coach who have believed in her from day one.

“The reason my parents moved over here [from Greece] was mainly for me and for my sister. There was a point that my dad was working pretty much all day and he was only getting three hours of sleep a day just to make sure that I can do what I love the most. So to be able to support me with my karate. I don’t think I can thank him enough for that. Mum was always like my best friend and my psychologist whenever I was sad, whenever I couldn’t understand why something was happening with my sport, I would always talk to her. She was always there by my side supporting me. My sister was the same,” Sampani said.

“When I moved over here, my coach didn’t know who I was and he was part of the World Karate Federation. He took me on board and trained me when he didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have any international titles for him to train me. He yeah he just said ‘You know what? I can see potential in you’.”

Sampani talks dual career paths, the magic of karate and preparations for the international stage.

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What drew you to karate?

I started doing karate when I was back in Greece and I actually started off with ballet, completely different. One of my good friends at the time came up to me and she said ‘Oh I joined those karate classes. Why don’t you come join us and we just do it together?’. I went for a trial and I just fell in love with it. And I haven’t stopped practising since. I never went back to ballet. The discipline and organisation that you need, I guess, really drew me into it.

It’s game day, what do you do to get in the zone before the match?

I make sure I get to the stadium maybe an hour and a half, two hours before my competition just to familiarise myself with the environment I’m going into. I make sure I step on the tatami which is the mat we use, and just get a feel for it, seeing if it’s slippery, if it’s not, and see what I need to maybe work on during my warm up so I can implement that when I actually compete.

Then I just get a corner to myself. First I sit down and I visualise my ‘katas’, which are the techniques I do. And then once I feel like I’m mentally in the zone, I start warming up. And that’s how you, I guess, get the picture out of your head and you make it a reality and put it into action.

Top three training songs?

Oh my goodness, it changes all the time. They go from Greek to English. There is not a specific genre. I mean, when you’re in the zone when you’re training, you don’t really listen to them but you sort of have them there. They just make the environment you’re in feel like home. So I don’t mind what music is playing.

What do you find most challenging about karate?

When I’m training, I find it difficult to concentrate to the point where I will make a full kata the way I do it in the competition. And that makes it a lot harder for me when I actually get to the competition, because I feel like I haven’t done as much training as I could, which is not true, it’s just in my head. But just because you don’t give 100 percent of yourself it just feels that way.

Up to maybe two or three years ago, I was going into the competitions kind of doubting myself, I didn’t know if I had done enough. But then once you start seeing all the people around you that gets you fired up and you’re like, ‘Oh, you know what, I’ve done the work, I’ve done the best that I could’.

You obviously try to change your weaknesses but you don’t let them get to you mentally. I would say my problem is when I actually train and especially now with lockdown it’s a lot harder. But when it comes to competition day, you just know you’ve done your best. If you doubt yourself, that’s pretty much it. You’ve lost the game.

What has been a highlight in your sporting career thus far?

So first I would put the Olympic qualifiers that I went to back in June this year. That was part of the so that was in the senior category and I did really well. I was hoping to get into the Olympics, but it didn’t happen. Just going there was a big achievement,  especially when seniors is not my main category. I’m still in the under 21s. Then I would say the World Beach Games. There was another Olympic event that I went to back in 2019. And the World Championships back in 2019 as well, and within the country the Australian Open nationals first, seconds, all that.

It’s a lot of competitions and you can’t really say which one is the most important, because every competition leads to another competition. So it’s like a chain, every single one of them is very important and a highlight. The more you get into your CV as an athlete, the better.

I’m currently the top ranked female kata athlete in Australia and I also came second in the Oceania Championships in 2019 for the seniors. It was a huge year for me.

How has karate impacted your life?

So if I compare myself now that I’m 20 and maybe 10 years ago, I am a lot more disciplined and organised. The amount of friendships I’ve made is just unbelievable.  You’ve got people everywhere. You’ve got people supporting you and I would say for me, just the fact that I keep feeling the love, getting all the love from the people and the support has really changed how I see the world as well. It just makes you want to give back love and support to everyone, even if that’s not within the sporting community, even just to people you randomly meet.

It’s also that knowing that hard work will get you somewhere. You just have to make sure you put the effort and the time into it, whether that’s sports, your studies, your job. It’s amazing how a sport can change your life and the way you view things around you.

Marianna Sampani Photo: Supplied

What is something you learned about yourself through participating in karate?

It’s actually a long story, but I guess through that story I’ve learned how hardworking I am. Even though I get disappointed and sad at times, I don’t let that get to me. It makes me want to try even harder and prove that I can make it. I’m here for a reason.

What do you hope to achieve in the next year?

With karate I would like to go to more international competitions. Before COVID we used to have one big event every single month. So I would like to do that when we are allowed to travel and hopefully placed within the top 10. With uni I still have another four years left, but I want to make sure that I have really good marks because I want to join the Defence Force.

I just have to do my interviews for the Defence Force, hopefully get into that and that’s why I try to have a balance between uni and karate so I can do both at the same time.

What’s something someone might be surprised to learn about you?

I guess I look like too much of a girl, like a really ‘girly girl’. When I tell them I do karate, they can’t really comprehend it. And then when I say I want to join the Defence Force, I just see everyone is so surprised because they don’t really see me with my serious face on. They always see me laughing and smiling so I think that’s the biggest surprise for them. If it wasn’t on Instagram for them to see my achievements, or in the newspapers they would be even more surprised with karate.

Favourite way to unwind after a match?

I usually compete first on the day of competition, so I like to, once I finish, go support the other people competing and especially the younger kids because I know how nerve wracking it is, especially if that’s maybe one of your first competitions and. I just really like to go  make sure that they know I’m there supporting them, just like they do when I compete.

And if that’s overseas where we compete for the seniors, I’ll just make sure I’m there for the rest of my team and all my friends from overseas. That’s my favourite way to wind down. You’re still in the environment that you love, it’s like your second home, but at the same time, it’s like what I said before, you are giving back to your people.

I guess that for me has much more value than going out, having a coffee, going to party after a competition. After we all go, I just make sure I spend time with my family because I feel like without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

What are you most looking forward to in 2022?

I want to make sure that that by the end of the of next year I make it to the Defence Force and hopefully still be able to train if I’m in there because I’m going to be pretty much locked up.

With karate I’m looking forward to seeing everyone from all over Australia, make sure everyone is fine because we haven’t seen them in a very long time and just compete for Australia, compete for the state. The more competitions I can go to the better.

What is something you want to be remembered by?

I mean I sort of already have by going to the Olympic qualifiers. It was karate’s first time in the Olympics and they’re saying it’s also the last so we’ll never be in the Olympics again. So if that’s the case, I feel like just going to the qualifiers, I will be remembered as one of the only Australians that went to the trials for the Olympics during the only time that karate was actually part of it. So I guess that’s enough for me, but if I can work so hard and make sure I get international titles I would like people to remember me for that.

Going forward, if I make it into the Defence Force and work for them I would also like to have a karate school. At the same time you don’t really want people to remember you just a sportsperson. You want them to look at you as a normal person and someone who put good out into the world. That is way more important than remembering you for your achievements.

What do you think is the greatest misconception of women in sport?

From what I’ve heard, they always say women can’t do the same as men. They’re not as strong. When they hear karate, that’s the first thing that comes to mind is ‘Oh karate is just for men’.

God made us all the same so us going around saying that one can’t do what the other can do doesn’t really make sense to me. There is no difference between the two. I just think what men can do, women can do as well and we want it just as much, we train as hard for it.