Suprises greet Howard County 50+ Center's tai chi class in China

Seventeen older adults, ranging in age from their late 50s to 82, departed for China on Nov. 1 to compete in a tai chi competition. The travelers were all students of East Columbia’s 50+ Center’s tai chi classes taught by Jian Ping Mao, an instructor there for the last 10 years.

To everyone’s amazement, the group won three trophies and several gold medals for their routines in tai chi, a martial art studied for both defensive training and health benefits.

“They did an excellent job,” boasted Mao. “Everybody had a good time.”

No one quite knew what to expect when they touched down in China. Mao, a native of China, had planned the trip carefully, he said.

“I was very nervous,” Mao said. “Their age. Not being used to the air quality or food. It was a big group, also.”

Hosted in Mao’s hometown of Shaoxing, the competition required the group to do several original four-minute routines. At a recent class back in the states, the group showcased the various routines they did, some of which featured the use of fans and swords.

“Martial arts is slow, meditative movements,” said Ann Benjamin, 69, of Columbia, who started taking tai chi lessons 10 years ago to exercise her mind, spirit and body.

“I don’t take any medication, only vitamin supplements,” Benjamin said.

At 82, Elsa Ponce, of Columbia, started doing tai chi eight years ago after she hurt herself doing yoga.

“I love it,” Ponce said. “It is really great for balance.”

Both didn’t hesitate when the idea of competing in China was first mentioned.

“It was super,” Ponce said. “It went really well. We saw so many things and did so many things.”

“Everything was in place for it to happen,” Benjamin said. “I’m so glad I did it. Ping worked hard to make sure we made memories.”

For many in the group, their memories include the welcome they received from many in China.

“We were an attraction,” said Ernie Hilsenrath, 79, of Fulton. “You can see how diverse our group is with ages 50 to 80 and we’re all different sizes, different colors. We were a hit. They were very enthusiastic about us being there.”

At the competition, the group discovered that they were not really competing against other teams, but rather being judged on their own abilities and skills, Mao said.

“We had many good comments,” Mao said. “Good technique and a lot of detail. We were also not nervous.”

The group often performs outside of class for various events around the county, he said.

“They are used to performing,” Mao said.

Of Chinese descent, Pamela Segawa, 67, of Columbia, almost didn’t participate in the trip, she said, because it did not include some sites she had wanted to see in the country. Now she says she is so glad she did go, because not only did she enjoy the competition, she enjoyed the traveling the group did afterwards.

“We saw the countryside,” Segawa said. “The people were very interesting. … Their mannerisms and movements were so reminiscent of my grandparents.”

The group traveled, staying at a different hotel every night and visiting various gardens and temples and Shanghai. They returned on Nov. 13.

“We had Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The same dishes were prepared differently within cities and within different regions,” Benjamin said. “The dialects were all different. It was amazing. I learned so much.”

For Hilsenrath, who had traveled to China twice before for business, the trip was an unexpected joy.

“How in the world could I ever imagine being in a tai chi tournament in China?” Hilsenrath said. “I had do idea.”

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