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Karate Alba student and Inverness Royal Academy pupil Vilis Forstmanis overcomes life-threatening leukaemia to win Scottish Championship gold


By Andrew Henderson



Karate Alba won 18 medals at the Scottish National Championships – but one athlete's success in particular pulled at the heartstrings.

Vilis Forstmanis has been through a turbulent year to say the least. Already an established black belt, even competing at last year's Commonwealth Karate Games in Birmingham, his progress – and life – was put at risk when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Vilis Forstmanis and Dolina Ross.
Vilis Forstmanis and Dolina Ross.

Spending most of the last year in hospital, Forstmanis has been undergoing regular chemotherapy. At one stage though, things took a turn for the worse as his heart stopped beating.

More than five minutes of resuscitation efforts thankfully worked, but Forstmanis was not out of the woods yet. He would be placed in an induced coma under specialist care in Edinburgh for over a week before being able to start making progress in his recovery.

Lying in a hospital bed, the sport the teenager loved so dearly must have felt beyond reach.

Upon returning home, though, karate began to give back to the Inverness Royal Academy pupil. Karate Alba Sensei Dolina Ross – who had never taught someone in a wheelchair before Vilis – made sure to keep him involved by letting him join classes online, doing what he could from his bed.

Vilis Forstmanis was accomplished in karate before his cancer diagnosis – and he shows no signs of stopping even after.
Vilis Forstmanis was accomplished in karate before his cancer diagnosis – and he shows no signs of stopping even after.

When finally having the strength to return in person, Ross then broached the subject of competing in a wheelchair – and unsurprisingly Forstmanis has excelled again.

"We thought we'd lost him, but he bounced back – he's got some amazing spirit, I'll tell you," Ross said of the 14-year-old.

"We were keeping him going. He would zoom into class, and he was lying in bed so long I once got the class to sit down on the floor and lift their legs up to kick so that Vilis could do it with us. Then when he got back home, he was getting carried in and he would sit in a chair and do the hand movements.

"I was a wee bit embarrassed about asking him to compete in the para category at first, because he was so great and the idea could have offended him, but it didn't.

"I set about teaching him how to do things in his wheelchair. Instead of kicking, he flips his wheelchair back to signify a kick.

Karate Alba's Vilis Forstmanis (14) won gold in the Scottish National Championships para category.
Karate Alba's Vilis Forstmanis (14) won gold in the Scottish National Championships para category.

"It's amazing, I just well up when I see him. I was actually told that he's at European standard. I would like to take him to that level, but I'll take him to the British Championships first before going abroad to see if he copes with that.

"This past year, he has gone from the lowest of the low to the highest of highs. For him to more or less die then see him winning the Scottish Championship, you wouldn't believe that would happen.

"His mother was in tears. It was very emotional for everyone, his friends in karate too. He has come through the ranks with a lot of the boys, and they were in tears as well.

"Vilis just took it in his stride, which was phenomenal. He didn't just go out there and do a few moves, he performed at such a high level. It means the world to me."

Not the only champion at Karate Alba

Even past Forstmanis' success, it was a phenomenal weekend for Karate Alba.

In total, the club won five gold medals, five silver medals and eight bronze medals – meaning 51 per cent of Karate Alba's entrants won a medal of some colour. In some of the junior categories, the club even took all three podium places.

Three of Karate Alba's gold medal winners at the 2023 Scottish National Championships - Luca Di Candia, Leo Erdmanis and Jamie Borthwick.
Three of Karate Alba's gold medal winners at the 2023 Scottish National Championships - Luca Di Candia, Leo Erdmanis and Jamie Borthwick.

Luca Di Candia won gold in the boys' 11-12 Junior Grade, defeating clubmate Alastair Bull in the final. Leo Erdmanis won gold in the boys 11-12 Senior Grade, and Jamie Borthwick won gold in the 14-16 Cadet category.

There were more success stories too, but in Sensei Ross' mind, everyone who competed was a winner.

"It really was incredible," she said.

"I'm so proud of all my students. Even those who didn't win medals are still winners in my mind, because they all trained so hard to get selected for that competition in the first place.

"Finn McDonnell, who won our boys' under-8s, that was his fourth competition in-a-row he won gold in. I must be doing something right!

"The chief judge is actually a European-level judge, and he came up to me in the middle of Finn's competition to ask how old he was – he wouldn't believe Finn was only seven just over a month ago because he was so incredibly strong!

"Finn is from Crown. Fionn MacDonald from the Gaelic school won silver, then Harry MacLaughlin from Crown won third. Nobody else was even close to us.

"Sophie Howarth got bronze in the ladies' seniors too. She lost out on the gold medal by just one flag – she was incredible. It was really close, and she has worked very hard. It was only the way the draws were that meant she got bronze instead of silver."


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