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Featured Comeback: Elisa Au

AUGUST 2019

ATHLETE: ELISA AU
FOLLOW HER: @ELISAaukarate


Elisa is a relentless 3x Karate World Champion and the only female champion from the United States. She began taking karate at the age of 5, and by the time she was 10, she received her black belt. As a teenager, she taught after school karate programs. By the age of 18, she had won numerous WKF World Championships. In addition to her demanding karate schedule, Elisa was also involved in figure skating, gymnastics, canoe paddling, and track and field, while attending Punahou School - an elite college preparatory academy in Hawaii. In 2003, she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in civil engineering. Despite tearing her ACL, she continues to teach seminars around the world, including Japan, Canada, Australia, and the U.S. She also stars in a DVD series, called "SECRETS of Championship Karate", where she shares her training methods and ideas along with tips on how to succeed in karate competition.


“That feeling that only comes from competing”

“That feeling that only comes from competing”

Elisa Au has always dreamed of being an Olympian as a young girl growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii.  She would watch incredible athletes like Kristy Yamaguchi and Shannon Miller shine on the world’s greatest stage of sport, hoping that one day she could do the same in the sport that she loved so much. Elisa started karate at the age of 5 and never looked back. 

"Karate has always been my passion. I loved it from the very first day of class.”

By age 9, she was competing at national tournaments and by 15, she was a junior world champion.  Her sensei (teacher), Chuzo Kotaka was a former All-Japan champion who had moved to Hawaii and produced generations of karate champions. 

"My dojo (club) in Hawaii is known for producing some of the best karate athletes in the USA and in the world. From our small dojo in Hawaii, we have won over 12 senior world medals and numerous junior world medals collectively.”

Elisa excelled as a junior athlete and continue to dominate at the senior level.  At age 21, Elisa won the WKF World Championships, making her the first American female to win and only 3rd  person from America. However, the Olympics were not in her future as the sport of karate was not accepted into the Games.  Elisa continued to excel, winning both her weight class and the open weight division at the 2004 World Championships. She was the first person to ever double gold in individual events, marking her name is karate history.

At the age of 29, with 5 World Championship medals, Elisa decided to retire from the sport and start a family. 

"I was sad to end my competition career, but at that moment, I knew that I had given it everything I had and that I had done my best on karate’s most elite level.  I participated in 6 World Championships and since karate was still not in the Olympic Games, I felt satisfied and ready to start the next chapter of my life as a mother.” 

She now has two children, Ava and Luke, and helped to build a Chicagoland karate club with over 700 members for the past 11 years.  

“Karate has always been my passion. I loved it from the very first day of class”

“Karate has always been my passion. I loved it from the very first day of class”

Good news came when karate was announced as a new Olympic sport for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.  After being away from the sport for 7 years, Elisa made the big decision to return and make a run for the Olympics. It would be a huge undertaking as she was already 36 (most females in the sport retire by 30), with two kids and a lot of ring rust.

“I was hesitant to let people know at first that I really wanted to return to the sport.  I felt that a lot of people would think that my time had passed and this was just a pipe dream. But something inside of me knew that I was capable of returning to the elite level and that I would have a chance at the 2020 Olympics.”

She did well in her debut year, winning the USA Open and taking a bronze at an international event in Austria.  Feeling on a roll and gaining momentum one event at a time, Elisa was on the road to the Olympics.

"It felt so good to win the USA Open in 2017.  This competition had always been a favorite of mine because we were competing on home turf, which is rare for karate. To have so many people cheer me on during the eliminations and the finals was amazing.”

But at the 2018 USA Open, in the final seconds of the gold medal match, Elisa collapsed with a torn ACL.  It was her first major injury and it would take her out for almost a year, according to her doctors. Elisa was determined to recover as soon as possible as the Olympic qualifying tournaments would be starting in just a few months.  With intense physical therapy from a former judo athlete, Davor Vasilijevic, Elisa was able to work back within 7 months and compete at the 2018 World Championships.

"I was determined. I went out and found the best physical therapist who understood my goals and I found Davor.  He has guided me back through the rehabilitation process while keeping in mind my number one goal of returning to sport. It is important to find people on your team who share the same goals as you, and Davor is one of those people on my team who has helped me achieve my goals.”

“One step at a time… Patience”

“One step at a time… Patience”

Now more than a year post-surgery, Elisa is still climbing back to her peak competition level and is searching for the top ranked spots amongst her competitors.  She has plans to compete in many of the upcoming Olympic qualifying events that will earn her valuable points towards Tokyo. Her next stop in fact, is to Tokyo for the Premier League event where only the top 100 athletes in the world are invited to participate.

"I’m looking forward to Tokyo next month.  Not only will it be held in the same venue as next year’s Olympic Games, but we have been preparing all summer for these upcoming events.”

Elisa won the USA National Championships held in Chicago over the summer. Her coach, Driss El Mannani, focused on preparing her to win the nationals as part of their plan to reach the Olympic Games.  El Mannani is an experienced international coach who has produced numerous international champions during his tenure as head coach for Morocco and Chile. He has now turned to the personal coaching side and supports Elisa at all of her worldwide events.

Only 10 athletes in every category will make the Olympic cut, and the women’s middleweight category that Elisa competes in is considered to be one of the toughest pools out there.  The goal is to qualify at the final Olympic qualifying event held in Paris during the month of May next year. Those who medal will earn their chance to represent her country and the sport of karate for the first in history. “I’m very excited for Paris.  The athletes are going to put it all out on the line at this event. There’s so much at stake, so I’ve got to arrive there 100% prepared.”


“My journey is a unique one in that I took so much time away from competing and even despite a major injury, I’m right where I need to be now with 12 months to go.  Whether I qualify or not is not everything to me. Yes, I want it, but I will also remember the process, the ups and downs, and what an incredible time of my life this has been.”

Thank you Elisa for being an inspiration to athletes across the globe!

THANK YOU TO KEY PLAYERS IN ELISA’S RECOVERY:

  • dr. gordon nuber, orthopedic surgeon

  • davor Vasilijevic, physical therapist

  • DRISS EL MANNANI, coach

  • brian mertel, former teammate and trainer