Imagine taking a foreign Sumo wrestling team to Japan, or an ice hockey team to Canada, or a basketball team to the US and competing successfully in the traditional home of those sports.

That’s what happened in early August to a small Australian team of taekwondo competitors who competed successfully in the 2017 ITF Asian Taekwon-Do Championships and Korean Open Festival, held in the South Korean City of Incheon.

Melbourne-based Anastasia Cariotis and teammate Michael Luu (junior competitor), each won gold and silver, taking home seven medals out of eight events they entered into. Their feats were all the more impressive given it was the first time Australians were competing in these ITF-sanctioned Asian games where they competed against larger squads from countries all over the world, who often had the advantage of being supported by government sponsorships. The small Aussie team was accompanied by coach Master Spyridon Cariotis from Victorian-based club USMA Taekwondo.

As Anastasia Cariotis explains, “In the past, Australia hasn’t attended these ITF regional games. This was our first experience of these Asian games and, in testing the waters here, we had a tiny contingent of two. Absolutely miniscule compared to the size of teams like Argentina and Russia who each had large squads. Some teams have government sponsorships and are regular fixtures at international events as a result. Some of my teammates back home had been keen to go to these Asian games but in the end they couldn’t due to work commitments. I so wish they had been there because I train with them regularly, I saw them win medals for Australia in England and I know their potential.

“My teammate Michael and I were absolutely stoked to take home seven medals out of eight events we entered into. Winning in sparring was a bit of a surprise for me actually, because I have always thought of myself as a patterns girl and I hadn’t fought in a tournament since England last year.”

That’s when Cariotis won her first-ever medal (bronze), representing Australia at the world championships.

“After the England World Championships last year I was eager not to lose motivation and to ride that wave of momentum. I love travelling. I had always wanted to visit Korea in my lifetime. For me the opportunity to wrap that trip around a taekwondo tournament seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s the brilliant thing about taekwondo. It can take you anywhere,” she said.

Cariotis describes her experience in Korea as insightful, giving her a first-hand glimpse into cultural and regional differences within the world of taekwondo. “From the moment I entered the stadium and saw competitors – especially kids from Kyrgyzstan warming up, it was evident that back in their home countries they have a strictly Spartan approach to martial arts. Some of the juniors from Russia and Japan were so driven and disciplined and just phenomenal to watch in both patterns and sparring. You can see this then play out with the adult athletes and their hardened, fiery approach when they step in the ring and produce brilliance. It was so inspiring. I was enthralled watching some of them in action.”

Observing these values of discipline and hard work in action resonated personally for Cariotis.

“I respect hard work. I respect effort and determination. I respect people who get back up after they fall. Those who fail and go back out there and try again. The ones who keep going even when the odds are against them. I was raised to value these things. I started taekwondo when I was four years old and I watched my father put in hours and hours of training to compete in tournaments while building his taekwondo school. That’s probably, where I get all this from – but don’t tell him that,” she laughs.

Cariotis has met and made many friends from around the world through taekwondo. In Korea she met esteemed Grand Master Nestor Galarraga, and connected with the Argentinian team. She hopes to resume their friendship next year at the 2018 ITF World Championship in Buenos Aires.

The Australian team selection trials begin shortly and she and her friends from USMA are keen to get there.