The karate kid who stood up to her bullies
From the kid who was picked on for being different, Sian Scott is now an imposing figure in karate, fighting to represent New Zealand in the sport's Olympic debut in Tokyo next year
When seven-year-old Sian Scott first came to live in New Zealand, she found herself at the mercy of bullies. Simply for being different.
“I was small, we moved around a lot, and I looked different,” says Scott, who’s mother is Filipino and birth father English. “I was the subject of a lot of bullying. I got into a lot of fights.”
So her mum, Jojina, decided it would be beneficial if she, Sian and her brother, Zak, learned karate.
“My mum was always about standing up for yourself,” Scott says. “She wanted us to learn self-defence, and I’m so glad she did. It was a really life-changing thing.
“Karate empowered me when I felt I was at my weakest. It taught me to calm down, and that fighting should only be your last resort.
“Karate is about shaping you as a person, not just physically. It really contributed massively to who I am now."
That same picked-on little girl started competing a year later, collecting medals from every competition she entered.
She'd go on to train towards becoming an officer in the British Army, and work as a PE teacher and a fitness instructor - with athletes, refugees and stroke survivors among those she's helped.
And she'd become one of the world’s leading karateka (a practitioner of karate) in kumite - the sparring and fighting element of the sport.
Now she wants to be one of the first New Zealanders to compete in karate at the Olympics, when the sport makes its long-awaited debut at next year’s Games in Tokyo.
Although two knee surgeries, and Covid-19, have laid down speed bumps along her journey, 30-year-old Scott is determined to get to the final qualifying competition in Paris next year and make it into the Olympics.
She will have to pay her own way to get there – “it’s all out of love”. That and the countless hours of training she puts in it will all be worth it, she says, if it helps her get to Tokyo.
Scott is up well before dawn most mornings, to start her technique training at 4.30am in the karate dojo, Jyoshinmon Shorin-Ryu Karate-Do, run by her family in the west Auckland suburb of Avondale. She lives in the apartment upstairs, so traffic isn’t a problem.
She teaches two boot camp classes before breakfast. Then does dojo administration work, before driving to a Newmarket fitness centre to do her own cardio and strength training around instructing her lunchtime fitness class.
In the evening, she teaches another class at the dojo, then ends the day with her own karate training.
“I’m upstairs again around 9pm,” she says. “Most of my life I’ve been an insomniac, so I’m kind of used to not sleeping a lot. But I try to squeeze in a nap where I can.”
Scott’s step-father, Chris Bennett, set up the dojo with his parents. “His dad is the master of our dojo, so it’s a big family affair,” says Scott, whose black belt mum and brother also teach there.
Bennett, a five-time Oceania and two-time Commonwealth champion, is also Scott’s main coach. “He’s one of the most successful karateka to come out of New Zealand and he’s my hero in martial art and sport,” she says.
Scott first competed for New Zealand at 16. But her karate career was interrupted when she moved back to her birthplace, England, to finish her schooling.
She graduated from the University of Exeter with an honours degree in exercise and sports science before deciding to enter the military.
“My family on both sides were in the navy, but I got seasick, so it held no appeal to me,” Scott says. She joined the territorials, and upped her fitness.
“I originally wanted to be a combat medic, but if in training they see you as officer material, they push you down that route. I fought it for a very long time,” she says.
But she was convinced to apply, and was then selected for the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. “It’s a very competitive institution to get into; at times there are 1000 people applying for one spot,” she says.
She trained there for 10 months. “Despite being small [she's 1.57m], I was in the top third for physical fitness,” she says. But then she injured her back and had to leave with a medical discharge.
“I was devastated. I'd worked so hard. I was one of the smallest, and the ratio of men to women is 10 to one,” she says. “They said: ‘Take a year, get better, come back’. But things changed and I wanted to go home to New Zealand.”
"Once you realise you’re not made of glass, it’s great. You really don’t feel anything until after the match."
So she returned to Auckland in 2015, and made a full recovery, but her new focus was on teaching. While doing her degree, she'd taught fitness to a wide array of people including refugees, stroke survivors and anti-social behaviour offenders. Back at home, she taught PE in high schools, was a teacher’s aide at a special needs school and became a personal fitness instructor.
"I love teaching, especially with a health focus. That’s my passion,” she says.
Then Scott decided it was time to get back into competitive karate.
“I fell in love with it all over again. I’ve always regretted taking breaks from it, so even if I tire of it now – which I doubt – I’m not going to leave karate again,” she laughs.
Scott chose to focus on kumite - the sparring discipine that allows full contact to the body, and controlled contact to the head. She's had a few 'accidents', she admits. "I’m told blocking with your face isn’t the right thing to do," she laughs.
"When I came back to New Zealand from army training, apparently any fear I had was long gone. Once you realise you’re not made of glass, it’s great. You really don’t feel anything until after the match."
Within two years, Scott was the Oceania champion and ranked 13th in the world in her under 55kg weight division.
But then her luck soured again when she tore the ACL in her left knee during a take-down move, and had to undergo surgery early in 2018. With diligent rehab, she fully recovered in seven months – only to have her right knee do the same,14 months after the first.
“It was pretty gutting,” Scott admits. “But I’m pretty good if I have a cry, then see it as a new challenge and focus on that."
Unable to compete internationally while she recovered, Scott slid down the rankings ladder and dropped out of the premier league for the world’s top 50 karateka. She was fighting her way back up when the Covid-19 pandemic closed down all competitions around the world.
She went into lockdown with her brother and her fiancé, Antonino Motuliki, who she met through karate. The trio trained together every day in the downstairs dojo.
But lockdown was “a bit of a double-edged blade” for Scott. While it meant a longer time to rebuild her fitness and fine-tune her technique after the knee surgeries, it was tough on a personal level.
"We were going to get married at the end of the year, and the whole plan was this would be my last year competing for a little while, because we want to start trying for a family,” she says.
But Scott decided to carry on one more year towards Tokyo. “The wedding is still happening, but the family part is going to be on hold for a little while, which is a bit of a stress for both of us."
Her sport science background has helped her to re-plan. She’s now training, saving and fundraising while waiting for borders to open and competitions to start again, and a for a date to be announced for the rescheduled qualifying tournament in Paris, likely to be May.
She knows it won’t be easy. There are only six divisions at the Olympics - three for women, three for men - with 10 athletes in each division; at the qualifier she will have to finish in the top three in the under 55kg division.
“It would be incredible to represent New Zealand at the Olympics,” she says. “We’ve waited a really long time for this.” She’s hoping another Auckland fighter, Andrea Anacan, will qualify in kata – karate’s solo form discipline.
Scott has come a long way from the little girl bullied in the playground. And she’s happy she made New Zealand her home.
“It’s really a lot more supportive here. Girls can fight against boys,” she says. “Whenever I did anything physical in the British Army, and beat the boys in pull ups or push ups, they were more likely to make an excuse, or a slightly bitter joke about it.
“It’s not easy for girls. They want to get things perfect straight away and sometimes over think things. So whenever we have squad trainings or camps, I tell the girls: ‘Don’t be afraid, just go for it’.
"Hopefully we can change that mentality a little bit.”