When he was 6 years old, Alex Ni, a West Windsor native and sophomore at the Hun School, enjoyed watching the Power Rangers and Jackie Chan movies for the martial arts action. He loved it so much, that when Huaxia Chinese School, which he attended on Sundays, advertised a weekly kung fu given by Zhao Chang Jun Wushu Academy of America, he signed up.
Although his mother had wanted him to play volleyball, he “never really got into it,” he says, but his interest in Wushu—which, along with kung fu, is one of two categories of the sport—remained strong.
When he was in fourth grade, the wushu academy moved to a larger facility, which enabled Ni to take three classes a week. Eventually this morphed into hours of practice at home and, on alternate weekends, at top kung fu academies in Connecticut and Virginia. He got so good that he eventually started participating in international competitions.
In November, at the 7th World Kung Fu Championships in Emeishan, China, the 15-year-old Ni—one of 171 Americans from 15 states and 3,000 athletes from 50 countries worldwide—won gold medals in Imitation Styles Barehand and Double Broadswords.
The first is a form without any apparatus that imitates different creatures; the second is a weapon form using two broadswords with blades of flexible metal. He also earned a bronze in duilian, which is choreographed sparring between two or three people.
“My partner and I developed our own sparring form, so it is unique,” Ni says. “My partner and I live in different states; we could have done better if we had more time to practice together.”
Wushu, which derives from Chinese characters that together connote “stopping conflict and promoting peace,” is the collective term for the martial art practices that were the main form of battlefield combat in China for thousands of years.
“Originally it was a form of self-defense but was also how you showed you were skilled in a very high art,” Ni says, adding that the sport has a spiritual element. “Kung fu was not just about fighting with the body—it was about training with the mind.”
Wushu is divided into taolu (forms) and sanda (open-hand sparring). Wushu taolu comprises contemporary forms in three categories, each with very specific requirements that are somewhat similar to those in gymnastics and figure skating. Both wushu taolu and kung fu movements incorporate combat skills of attack and defense, even though there is no physical opponent. Ni prefers the complexity of Wushu, which is more acrobatic and includes modern movements like flipping and jumps that require more skill.
Watching videos of Ni’s performances—and they are indeed performances—suggests a sport that combines dance, acrobatics and martial arts. In some forms, flashing swords are part of his routine, but any “fighting” is imagined rather than real. From lying on his back, Ni lands upright on two feet in a split second. Flips and somersaults bring to bear the surefooted movements of gymnasts. The smoothness and elegance of his movements are reminiscent of ballet.
By 2014, he had improved enough to go to Washington, D.C., to try out for the U.S. Traditional Wushu Team that would represent the United States at the 6th World Traditional Wushu Championships (recently renamed the World Kung Fu Championships) in Chizhou, China. He made the team, whose members trained under their own coaches and competed for themselves but all represented the United States. The team came in sixth.
“It was definitely a very different experience than competing in the states,” he says. “People had a better understanding of the sport and were better practitioners.” He remembers, for example, higher jumps and better quality of movement overall.
Ni attributes his readiness for the 2014 Wushu Championship to training at the Wu Dang Kung Fu Academy in Orange, Connecticut, which he got connected to via a coach he met at the team trials in Washington. The academy specializes in kung fu forms, and in February 2014, he started to train there monthly for the world championships that November. He also spent a month training in the summer, and finally every week before the November competition.
Although his opponents at the 2014 competition seemed to be more experienced and stronger in wushu, he says, “I competed against them and gave it my best and had fun, and got a gold and a silver.” The gold was in fist form and the silver in 9-section whip.
After meeting the coach of the O-Mei Wushu Kung Fu Center, a professional coach focused on wushu forms, at another competition, he did a two-week stint at the Fairfax, Virginia, center in June 2015.
“I realized I could improve a lot and kept going there,” Ni says of the center, which is one of the premier training centers on the East Coast and has produced many champions. Starting in the 2015-2016 school year, he has spent six to seven hours a day every other weekend training at the Virginia school. At home he trains 1-2 hours every day, and manages not to have too many problems balancing schoolwork and martial arts.
In 2016, Ni made the U.S. Junior Wushu Team, which represented the United States in Burgas, Bulgaria, at the 6th World Junior Wushu Championships, the highest level of Wushu for individuals 18 and under. Whereas the competitions in China tend more toward traditional martial arts, in Bulgaria they lean toward more contemporary styles, which Ni says require much greater skill. He ranked sixth in the competition Qiangshu (spear) in the 13-to-15 year old age group.
Describing what judges are looking for in the competitions, Ni says, “The scoring is based on the quality of your movements and how you capture the essence of the fighting aspect of the sport. Also there are some artistic aspects—rhythm and look or appearance—how you look like you’re a fighter and how you make your form more lively. When you do it alone, you have to make look like you’re fighting, using expression and rhythm.”
Wu has also performed his wushu in talent shows, either to entertain or to raise money—at senior and rehab centers, at Plainsboro Founders Day, at Chinese New Year celebrations, and at Lincoln Center in New York. In 2015 he won a bronze grand prize for his performance in the NYC Sinovision Talent Show.
At Hun, Ni has been teaching Xing Yi Quan, a fist form of wushu, at the martial arts club, and he recently has found the time to start fencing with his school.
One big plus of competing in China is that Ni gets to visit his grandparents and other family. His father, Bing, and his mother, Hong, grew up in poor families in China and came to America, Ni says, because “both of the families wanted them to get a better education and also to have a better life.”
His father lived in the province of Fujian with six or seven siblings, and he had to work while also focusing on academics. Bing was successful, ending up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduated with a PhD in physical oceanography and also studied some business. Bing is now portfolio manager of an energy fund he founded a decade ago.
Hong’s family immigrated to the United States from Guang Dong, and she also ended up at MIT, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemical engineering. Today Hong does analytical work and model simulations for Bing in the same firm; because she works primarily on the computer, she can work from home and has the flexibility to travel with her son.
Ni went to Dutch Neck, Village School and Community Middle School, and he started at Hun last November.
Ni says the last year in wushu has been more challenging for him, in particular his efforts to compete in adult team trials, which are open to any age. “To improve my movements and forms to get to that level was taking a lot of time, and I had to be patient,” he says, noting that he did make the B team of the U.S. Wushu Team, which is mostly adults.
As to the future, Ni says clubs and teams have been starting up at colleges, and he figures he will either join one or try to start his own. Although the sport has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee and was going to be one of the extra Olympic sports in Tokyo in 2020, he says, “it didn’t make it in the end.”
He admitted that he does feel some stress when he competes, but not actually during the competition. “Competitions are stressful in the moment before you get up on the arena and do your form for the judges. You’re seeing everyone else go up, and you’re thinking, ‘How am I going to be able to do a better form than them?’” he says.
The challenge for him, he says, is “improving the techniques so that they look sharper and more professional, and also trying to make forms that implement the style and the quality that a practitioner wants and the judges would like to see.”