Interview conducted by Tre Castillo
In December 2009, I had finally decided to formally begin taking martial arts, a decision which brought me to the Austin Ving Tsun Academy headed by Master Jeff Webb.
During my first class at the academy, I was introduced to instructor Harry Lundell, who had started training with Sifu Webb back in 2003 at the age of 59. From my first day onward, Harry has been instrumental in my Ving Tsun training. I’ve always looked forward to working with him as he has a patient persistence; never giving too much, but giving just enough to keep me on my toes.
Recently, I had the honor of being present on February 24, 2012 when Harry was awarded the title of Sifu, just a few weeks prior to his 69th birthday. Shortly thereafter, I had the pleasure of sitting down and speaking with Sifu Harry about his recent accomplishment and about the journey he took to get there. What I learned was that Sifu Harry is a man with an interesting background and is literally one of central Texas’ true pioneers in the martial arts.
TRE: Sifu Harry, tell me about how you began studying martial arts.
SIFU HARRY: My first martial art was Western Boxing, which I studied at the YMCA in San Antonio, Texas, when I was fourteen years old. My coach was a man named Harry Smith, who worked me hard on fundamentals for two summers. Later I was in a boxing club in Freer, Texas; the south Texas oil town where I was raised.
TRE: How many years did you box?
SIFU HARRY: About two years.
TRE: What was your progression from that point on?
SIFU HARRY: It was in 1957 while studying boxing at the YMCA when I first met Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, my future TAE KWON DO instructor. Everyone called him Mr. Rhee then, which he preferred since he was proud to be a new American. He was going to college in San Marcos, Texas, and rode his motor scooter to the “Y” twice a week to teach. In 1966 when I was in college, I saw him put on a demonstration at the University of Texas in Austin. I told my friend who was with me that this was what I was going to do. Mr Rhee is a truly great man.
TRE: How long did you study Tae Kwon Do?
SIFU HARRY: For about the next twenty years. I ultimately received a 3rd Degree Black Belt from Mr. Rhee. I greatly enjoyed practicing this art, but it is more of a young man’s game than is Ving Tsun. For example, it can be very hard on knees and hips as one grows older. Ving Tsun is easier on the body, and has greater carry-over value for a lifetime of practice.
Harry Lundell circa 1967, showing his Tae Kwon Do skills.
TRE: How similar or dissimilar do you feel that Ving Tsun is in comparison to your previous training in Western Boxing and Tae Kwon Do?
SIFU HARRY: I think it’s more similar to Boxing than it is to Tae Kwon Do. Both Boxing and Ving Tsun emphasize the use of hands, while Tae Kwon Do emphasizes the use of kicking techniques, at which it excels. Especially since its introduction as a sport in the 1992 Olympics, Tae Kwon Do uses fewer hand methods and in its sport version forbids entirely the use of hand strikes to the head-which are the bread and butter of Ving Tsun.
TRE: In your younger days, I heard that you were also a weightlifter?
SIFU HARRY: Yes, in my undergraduate years at UT I was an Olympic-style weightlifter, to be distinguished from power lifting. All Olympic-style lifts are overhead lifts, and place great emphasis on explosive power-needed to impart as much inertia as possible to the bar in its seven foot plus journey overhead. Power lifters train for power in the bench press, squat, and dead lift.
TRE: What role has the weight training played in your martial arts studies?
SIFU HARRY: Actually, I think that it has improved my speed. Olympic-style weightlifters are known for having quick reflexes, because of the nature of their training.
TRE: Do you think weightlifting is necessary in order to be an effective martial artist or to be able to defend oneself?
SIFU HARRY: No. While weightlifting is not necessary to effectively defend yourself, it cannot be argued that strength is not useful. It is a question of how and when strength is used. In the early stages of learning an art like Ving Tsun which stresses the use of tactile and proprioceptive sensitivity in combat, weight training can certainly retard a students progress. Later, once relaxed use of strength has been learned, it is then that weight training can sometimes be helpful. While discouraged by both GM Kernspecht and Sifu Jeff, if one does choose to lift weights, I would recommend they spend at least two hours doing chi-sao practice for every hour of weight training. And also do lots of stretching, something which most people do not realize will greatly increase their available strength.
TRE: As a former deputy sheriff for Travis County, did you find the martial arts useful for law enforcement?
SIFU HARRY: Fortunately, I never had to use the martial arts as a law enforcement officer. An officer’s greatest weapon is his or her brain, and there is no technique that will compensate for poor judgment. I had a few experiences where close-range engagements were a real possibility, and was able to persuade the individuals involved to take a more reasonable course of action. In fact, the only fight that anybody wins is the one they avoid. Also, I never liked doing a lot of paperwork.
TRE: Have you made adjustments to your martial arts training as you’ve gotten older?
SIFU HARRY: Yes, I’ve had to make several adjustments to my practice, as nature imposes this requirement. Primarily, more time is needed for injuries to heal. I have become quite popular with my physical therapist, as my fees are helping him save up for that German automobile he has always wanted.
TRE: What do You find to be the most challenging aspect of Ving Tsun Kung Fu?
SIFU HARRY: For me, the most challenging aspect of Ving Tsun training has been the ongoing task of learning how to completely relax and to not use my strength improperly. Relaxation is not an event, it is a process, and takes time to learn. As I learn to do this, I will be better able to offload the power my training partner is using, and perhaps even use it against him.
TRE: You started martial arts in the 1960’s and have been in the company of such greats asChuck Norris, Joe Lewis, and Jhoon Rhee. In what ways has the martial arts scene changed since then and have the changes been positive or negative?
SIFU HARRY: Back in the mid-60’s when I started Tae kwon Do, techniques were more primitive, and people were modernizing what the soldiers were bringing back from Asia. No one knew what the forms [katas] were for (in fact, they were for anti-grappling, not boxing), and everyone did the same kick-boxing techniques in kumite [sparring] irrespective of their forms practice. In short, people were figuring out what worked. Today, with MMA, we have a better idea of what works, but we have paid a great price in losing the artistic and character building aspects of the martial arts.
TRE: What are your current goals related to physical fitness and martial arts?
SIFU HARRY: My goals are simple: to continue as long as I can and to enjoy my practice as I always have. I am glad to be here training with Sifu Jeff, who is a patient teacher and an extraordinarily talented martial artist. Many of my best friends are martial artists, and we agree that what we do sure beats golfing, which Mark Twain always regarded as a good walk ruined.
TRE: Sifu Harry, thank you for your time and congratulations on receiving your Sifu title.
SIFU HARRY: Thank you, and it has been my pleasure.