Karate

World No. 1 Damian Quintero: Welcome to the golden age of karate

Karateka Damian Quintero talks Cobra Kai, Karate Kid, training in a pandemic and  karate's debut at the Olympics in this exclusive interview with Olympic Channel

By Ken Browne ·

"I really want to watch Cobra Kai," says Damian Quintero laughing, "but my wife doesn't really fancy it."

Karate kata's World No.1 is as full of energy and enthusiasm as ever in his interview with Olympic Channel.

"We're watching another series together right now," he continues, "so I'm waiting for a day when I'm alone to enjoy Cobra Kai, the trailer pops up on the opening screen every time and I'd really like to see it."

But he doesn't need to watch Netflix's viral karate series to see the positives:

"I remember watching the original (Karate Kid) film years ago, it actually came out in 1984, the year I was born, and within the Hollywood spectacle you can see karate techniques and some applications of kata which we actually do."

"We practise those things so it's cool to have these TV series or films because it brings our sport to a wider audience in the general public."

Spain's golden age of karate kata

Beyond the film and the interest in the modern hit show spin-off, Quintero says right now is a "golden age" of karate kata in Spain.

Quintero is World No.1 in the men's ranking, Sandra Sanchez is World No.1 in the women's ranking and there's an exciting generation of young Spanish karatekas ready to take up the mantle.

"We're in the Olympics, there are lots of grants and support, the press gives us coverage like you calling right now," Quintero tells Olympic Channel.

"It wasn't like this 18 years ago when I started."

The kata discipline is an ancient martial art that doesn't involve combat, the karateka performs detailed patterns of movements, perfecting technique, transition and flow between moves.

Most people think of karate kumite when you mention karate - the contact sport where you score points by landing kicks, punches, and throws.

Kata and kumite are the two karate disciplines that will feature at Tokyo 2020 in 2021.

And that's exactly where 36-year-old Quintero, the ten-time European champion has retrained his focus after the Olympic postponement and the great reset that the coronavirus pandemic has caused.

Back training at the elite high performance centre in Madrid with star coach Jesus del Moral, there's just one thing on his mind.

"My goal is the Olympic Games, there's nothing else in my head but the Games." - Damian Quintero

Improvising in a Pandemic

Quintero, 36, lives in Madrid where the pandemic struck hard, the Spanish government ordering a complete lockdown at the end of March.

With the elite Olympic training centre in the capital closed down, Quintero had to improvise to stay in shape.

"The physical part was the hardest," he says, "the strength and weight training we do transfers to the technical response in our karate."

"Of course I had a couple of weights that my neighbour lent me, then I was using bottles of water, mop handles, press-ups, pull-ups, but that's not a lot really."

"I really noticed the loss in weight and musculature. Luckily on the kata side, the technical part, I have a basement with a tatami mat, it's about 15 square metres so I could train there and not bother my wife in the living room!"

"Almost every day we did double sessions remotely by videocall, with my iPad in the basement, so that part of the training was ok."

Physically and not technically was where he felt the setback most to his training because of Covid-19, but mentally they dealt with it well.

"As all competitions were off, we've taken it calmly, with a bit of philosophy, we were able to take a vacation when we would have been in Tokyo and then come back stronger."

Damian Quintero: "Karate belongs at the Olympics"

The news of the Olympic postponement came in the third week of lockdown in Madrid, and Quintero was stunned.

"The first week was fine, training at home, the second, ok, by the third week I was losing my will to train and then came the shock of the Olympic postponement."

As World Karate Kata No.1, Quintero has already qualified for Tokyo 2020.

"What goes through your head is that you've been training for three and a half years for one day, in my sport which debuts at Tokyo 2020, the first time we're on an Olympic program, where we belong."

"But then, of course, you think about it and what's happening across the world and you can't be selfish, you have to think of others, and it's obvious that the Olympics had to be moved, this battle against Covid is turning out to be a really hard one."

"In the end you have to be thankful to be able to see your family and that it hasn't struck people close to you."

"You have to stay positive, no athlete ever has an easy story, there are obstacles to overcome, walls to break down, you have to move forward, think, and focus."

"Next year I get to debut at the Olympics and demonstrate that karate is an Olympic sport like any other, and I'm going to fight for that medal."

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The beginnings

It all started for Damian Quintero in his hometown of Torremolinos near Malaga at the Goju Ryu Torremolinos karate club.

It was a small club right in front of his school that started in 1979, and has since produced some of the best karatekas in the country.

Quintero took up karate as a kid, and never imagined that one day he'd be going into an Olympics as favourite to win a gold medal.

The pause for the pandemic has only made him more determined, with the planning moved back a year.

"Our trainer has basically copied 2019 to 2020 and 2020 to 2021. So we took a vacation in July and now we don't stop until October next year."

"The handicap now is that we still don't have competitions which motivate you to get into top shape, but fingers crossed we'll be back competing in January."

'KINGtero' and the future of Spanish karate

At 36 Quintero is still king of Spanish kata karate and while he's not considering retirement yet, the plan was to slow down a bit in 2021.

That will now happen in 2022, but he can see a bright future in the next generation of Spanish karatekas.

Quintero doesn't want to name any names, but a quick glance at the world rankings shows that the current top-ranked karate kata cadet in the world is Azahara Perez on the female side and Alejandro Jimenez Diaz is No.2 in the men's category, and exciting talent Oscar Garcia Cuadrado continues his exciting rise, he's currently Junior World No.1.

But they get nothing for free from the master Quintero.

"I encourage them, but I don't let them win," says Quintero. "I try to win everything, from the weights room to the tatami."

"This is my territory."