White Phoenix rising
September 28, 2006
In one week, Brandon Briscoe is hoping to make a loud statement.The 19-year-old kung fu protégé will have little more than a minute and a half to perform a form, or series of movements, and distinguish himself on one of martial arts’ grandest stages. And the USA Hawaii World Games, Oct. 7-8, will be just his third competition. There is a great deal at stake. A win would secure the 2006 Aspen High School valedictorian a coveted spot in the Olympic Trials – the first major hurdle in a journey that could lead to Beijing in summer 2008. A win or strong showing also would help Briscoe validate the teachings of the rare and time-honored White Phéonix system and his “sifu,” Aspen kung fu Grand Master Joël Castillo. Anxiety is high, but you won’t see Briscoe sweat. You won’t see him flinch.
“I feel pressure, but I try to focus all of my energy into positive training,” Briscoe says. “Instead of worrying about what can go wrong, I think about what I want to do, what I will do.”Briscoe has thrived under similar pressures before. As a diverse and talented field at a 2005 competition in Kingston, Jamaica, was continually pared down, Briscoe staved off elimination. He completed a form – Tiger, deriving its name from the aggressive and energetic movements that resemble those of the animal – which included a difficult spinning jump kick in three consecutive rounds and stuck the landing with the precision of a gymnast performing the vault. He walked away with second in his first-ever competition, a feat Castillo called a triumph.”I was on the edge of my seat for that one,” Castillo recalls.Briscoe was drawn to the martial art because it afforded him the opportunity to test his physical and mental limits. It is a discipline that has both intrigued and consumed him since he was a young boy growing up in Seattle. He remembers being enamored with the portrayal of martial arts on both the small and silver sreens. Briscoe began learning tae kwon do at age 5. He soon gave up the sport to participate alongside his friends in soccer, basketball and baseball.After moving to Aspen 10 years ago, Briscoe rekindled his interest in martial arts when he enrolled in soo bahk doo classes for two years, in addition to his other activities. It was during his yearlong rehab from a dislocated shoulder suffered during football in ninth grade, however, that he was introduced to Castillo and to the White Phéonix system.White Phéonix’s rapid circular movements of the hands and feet and accompanying rapid snapping strikes are what distinguish it from other traditional martial arts, Castillo said. The system was designed for street confrontation, in which a person’s aim is to dispatch an opponent in the least amount of moves. “I had two friends who started practicing here, and they would always show me their favorite moves,” Briscoe remembers. “They would tell me the differences between the systems and try to prove to me why this system was so much better.
“I came and spoke with Joël, then took a few classes. I’ve been here ever since.”Briscoe juggled martial arts with his studies, as well as a short stint on the Aspen High football team and on the ski team.Recently, Briscoe made the decision to focus the bulk of his energies on his craft. The valedictorian told The Aspen Times in June that he was headed to CU Boulder’s school of engineering, but he had a change of heart over summer break.”I was having trouble deciding what my interests were,” he says. “The major I said I was going to pursue in November was different than the one I said in December. I decided to take some time and pursue something different. It seemed only natural that I would devote my time to what I was doing every minute I was outside school.”While his academic future is on hold – he is studying for the college boards and, if things go according to plan, he will attend Stanford University in the near future – Briscoe will focus his time and energy on kung fu. He currently trains four to five hours each day, and hopes to increase that in the coming months.”Ideally, what I’d like to be doing is get to the point where I’m training the entire day, every moment when I’m not eating or sleeping,” he says. “This sport has so many health benefits, not just in terms of aerobic strength, flexibility, agility and coordination. It helps me in everyday life.”
A leather punching bag sways gently, casting a dim shadow in the back of Aspen’s White Phéonix kung fu studio. Soft music wafts through the modest space, hardly bigger than a garage and tucked unassumingly behind a Laundromat and a tile store. Save for a student and an instructor, the room is empty. It’s 9:30 a.m., and light snow begins to collect on the asphalt outside. Inside, Briscoe and instructor Michael Frank soon delve into the Water formation, a series of well-rehearsed maneuvers designed to emulate the rise and fall of the ocean’s waves. Cadences of calm, soothing breaths accompany the circular movements of the arms and legs. Breathe in. Breathe out. Every body and hand position has a purpose and tangible application. Harnessing internal energy, poise and balance is key. Staying as loose and flexible as a television cable, yet being capable of delivering precise punches and kicks with the strength of steel is the objective. It’s an interesting juxtaposition – between beauty and grace and sheer force – but one Briscoe has grasped.”During a strike, most people get tense before they deliver a punch,” he says. “In that situation, all the muscles are working against each other. If you can mentally relax and stay loose, you can use only the muscles that are essential. This makes it easier to hit harder and faster.”To build endurance and strength, Briscoe uses a variety of unique training methods. In addition to running and using a weighted jump-rope, it’s not uncommon for Briscoe to spend nearly an hour in horse stance, with legs spread wide and slightly bent.Every other day, Briscoe strengthens his hands and forearms by punching a wooden dummy. He hits sandbags with his palms and drives his fingers through a container filled with beans; the process tears the skin and causes bleeding at first, but toughens the skin over time.
The sport is physically taxing, Briscoe admits. But his mental strength enables him to persevere, to push through pain and discomfort.”My body’s beat up right now, but you can’t let yourself get sloppy. You can’t let fatigue bring you down,” he says. “If you lay off and rest too much, you’ll be back where you were before. If you tell yourself this is ridiculous or absurd, you’ll start to believe it. It’s a mental game.”Briscoe’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. He has drawn the respect and admiration of Castillo, who also took to martial arts at a young age.Castillo first learned martial arts at age 8 while growing up in San Francisco. One year later, his Chinese nanny introduced him to Xing Wah Li, the sixth grand master of the White Phéonix system.Not long after, the sport “grabbed” Castillo.”There were no boundaries,” he says. “I couldn’t see the end. You could always continue to progress. There was some energetic connection.”Progress he did. Castillo won the 1999 U.S. Open Kung Fu Championships without being hit once. Four years later, he became the first American to capture a San Shou World Championship title. Then, in July 1996, a 22-year-old Castillo received his greatest honor. After he learned of the death of his sifu, Xing Wah Li, Castillo received a letter from Li officially passing on the White Phéonix system to him.
Castillo became the seventh grand master of the hybrid and secretive system, first devised in 1644 by China’s Shaolin monks. The gesture was overwhelming. “I almost had a nervous breakdown,” Castillo remembers.Castillo was hesitant to share his sifu’s teachings with a new generation. After all, he was the lone man entrusted with protecting a treasured system. Castillo ultimately decided, however, to breathe new life into the system by sharing it, he told The Aspen Times in November 2003. While numbers are in constant flux, White Pheonix’s Aspen studio currently provides individual instruction to 28 students of all ages. In addition, eight students meet two times a week in the parks of San Francisco to learn the system in a more traditional setting. Five others are practicing White Phéonix in Puerto Rico. While he is hesitant to share his “war stories” with students, Castillo said his focus is to create a system that can be adapted to enhance each individual’s strengths. And in Briscoe, Castillo sees himself.”It’s that mental state of not believing you’re going to lose,” Castillo says. “If you’re able to do that, if you’re able to set aside ego and fear and think clearly, you can achieve to your potential. If you can push out the anxieties of the moment, you can be good at anything.”If you strongly believe something is impossible, then it becomes impossible.”
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Briscoe is confident. He finished first in the 18-and-under division in a competition in Oakland, Calif., in fall 2005, impressing judges with his execution of the Eagle form – the same one he plans to use in Hawaii. Success will not be measured by results alone, however. “I just want him to be happy,” Castillo says of Briscoe. “I don’t care if he can’t fight his way out of a paper bag.”A gold medal will merely be a “beneficial byproduct of my training,” Briscoe says. True gratification comes from the experience. It comes from reaching and conquering personal limitations. It comes from overcoming pressure. It comes from learning from a grand master.”It’s taken me awhile to understand, to fully appreciate how lucky I am to working with him,” Briscoe says. “I don’t think people understand just how unique he is, especially here in America. He’s one of only a few people who have continued the focus and devotion to kung fu.”I know he’ll be happy if I succeed and go as far as I want. I feel like I have a responsibility to represent the system and Joël as best I can.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com