Malia Ber­nal

Black Belt - - 2018 WOMAN OF THE YEAR - BY MARK JA­COBS

Forty-five years ago, the mar­tial arts world was largely a boys club. Al­most all the in­struc­tors were male, al­most all the fa­mous com­peti­tors were male and al­most all the mar­tial artists ev­ery­one talked about — like those who got fea­tured on the cover of Black Belt — were male.

Then a tour­na­ment com­peti­tor from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, at the time known as Malia Da­cas­cos, be­came the first fe­male cham­pion to grace the mag­a­zine’s cover. Da­cas­cos, who’s now known as Malia Ber­nal, was not only the No. 1–ranked woman in the coun­try in both forms and fight­ing for sev­eral years run­ning, but she also had the temer­ity to be­gin chal­leng­ing — and beat­ing — the best male forms com­peti­tors. She ended up be­ing rated the fourth best kata com­peti­tor in the United States in the men’s di­vi­sion, as well.

“I was al­ways com­pet­ing against the same group of women, and I thought, Why not com­pete against

the men for a change?” Ber­nal said. “I fi­nally asked one pro­moter, and he let me do it. I’ll never for­get that first tour­na­ment. All the men lined up for the kata com­pe­ti­tion, then I stepped out there and some­one said, ‘You have the wrong di­vi­sion!’ And I told him, ‘No, I’m com­pet­ing against you guys to­day.’

“Then I won. But I never thought any­one would still be talk­ing about it years later.”

A self-de­scribed tomboy, Ber­nal was raised on a farm sev­eral miles from the near­est neigh­bors. She mar­ried young, and when her hus­band was away from home work­ing evenings, her par­ents rec­om­mended she take some sort of self-de­fense class just in case she ever had to pro­tect her­self. Never one to jump into any­thing without do­ing a lit­tle re­search first, she be­gan vis­it­ing lo­cal mar­tial arts schools to see which would be the best fit.

“I went to a lo­cal strip mall — one of those places with a pizza par­lor, an ice cream shop and a karate school tucked in be­tween — but I

didn’t care for it,” Ber­nal said. “I went to sev­eral more karate schools, but they were all too rigid. I had al­ways done ski­ing and re­al­ized my body was more of a flow­ing type. Then I vis­ited a kung fu school, and that re­ally piqued my in­ter­est.”

The school was run by Al Da­cas­cos, a renowned prac­ti­tioner of

ka­jukenbo who would go on to found his own brand of kung fu called wun

hop kuen do. Ber­nal signed up for classes, never dream­ing it would lead to a whole new life for her.

Al­though the school had more than a dozen other fe­male stu­dents when Ber­nal en­rolled, within a few months, al­most all had quit. “There were tough guys there in­ter­ested in hard­core fight­ing, and they didn’t re­ally want women around,” she re­called. “And most of the women didn’t want to be bat­tered black and blue, so they quit. But I’ve never been known to quit if I re­ally want to learn some­thing.”

Af­ter a while, the male stu­dents re­al­ized she wasn’t go­ing any­where, and they be­gan of­fer­ing ad­vice on how to im­prove. In re­turn, the brash Ber­nal told them that one day she would be the first fe­male mar­tial arts cham­pion on the cover of Black Belt.

“They all laughed at me,” she said. “But years later when it hap­pened, they all came to me with copies of the mag­a­zine and asked me to sign them.”

Da­cas­cos was harsh on her in the be­gin­ning, forc­ing his new stu­dent to fight in her first tour­na­ment af­ter just six weeks of train­ing — lit­er­ally push­ing her into the ring when she balked at fight­ing a more ex­pe­ri­enced green belt. For her part, Ber­nal felt Da­cas­cos was ar­ro­gant and at times cruel. But she made a deal with him, of­fer­ing to keep fight­ing in tour­na­ments if he taught her forms and weapons so she could com­pete in those di­vi­sions, as well.

Da­cas­cos be­gan tak­ing her more se­ri­ously, and as Ber­nal’s first mar­riage be­gan to dis­solve, she and her in­struc­tor be­came closer, even­tu­ally mar­ry­ing. As for the po­ten­tial com­pli­ca­tions of be­com­ing in­volved with her mar­tial arts teacher, Ber­nal said this was never an is­sue.

“When he had his uni­form on and we were in class, he was the boss,” she said. “But when we had street clothes on, it was open prairie. I could say what I wanted, and we were equal.”

To­gether, the pair be­came a pow­er­ful force, dom­i­nat­ing both men’s and women’s tour­na­ment com­pe­ti­tion in the early 1970s. But Ber­nal de­cided she should do more in mar­tial arts than just win tro­phies. To make a pro­fes­sion out of it, she knew she’d have to stand out. She be­gan wear­ing her hair in un­usual styles and sport­ing cus­tom- tai­lored kung fu uni­forms when ev­ery­one else was still wear­ing a stan­dard­is­sue karate gi.

“Al didn’t like it at first,” Ber­nal re­called. “He felt it was be­ing dis­re­spect­ful. I said I didn’t see how it was be­ing dis­re­spect­ful to him or his art if I’m try­ing to take things to another level so he and his style would gain more recog­ni­tion. Even­tu­ally, he saw I knew what I was talk­ing about.”

Ber­nal’s in­no­va­tions — and her un­com­pro­mis­ing work ethic — were passed down to a num­ber of stu­dents, in­clud­ing Karen Shep­erd and her step­son Mark Da­cas­cos, both of whom went on to be­come renowned tour­na­ment cham­pi­ons and gar­ner act­ing suc­cess in Hol­ly­wood.

Ber­nal hasn’t slowed down in re­cent years. She con­tin­ues to teach her own style of xian dai gung fu and work as a fit­ness trainer who be­gins her own rou­tine at 5:30 every morn­ing.

Al­ways some­thing of a trail­blazer for women in the mar­tial arts, Ber­nal said she never looked at her­self as a per­son cam­paign­ing for women’s rights or as even con­sciously be­ing part of a move­ment.

“I just did my own thing,” she said. “I was never one to join the band­wagon. My mother al­ways told [me to] strive to be a leader, not a fol­lower, and [that] I should want what seems to be im­pos­si­ble. That was how I looked at suc­ceed­ing in the mar­tial arts world back then. I had dreams, and if you have a dream, you fol­low it un­til you suc­ceed.”

The ed­i­tors of Black Belt are pleased to an­nounce that Malia Ber­nal is the mag­a­zine’s 2018 Woman of the Year.

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