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Sue Ann Mckean: Spreading The Aiki Message Through Bodybuilding

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #66 (February 1985)


I was little prepared for the magnificence of Sue Ann McKean. This powerful young woman from Mountain View, California is a highly proficient aikido instructor with twelve years of training experience and a champion bodybuilder of world caliber. She is moreover an articulate spokeswoman for both disciplines and has discovered important areas where the two arts are mutually complementary.

I’m sure that there are those among our dedicated readers who are shaking their heads and muttering to themselves: “There he goes! Pranin is talking about muscles again! The next thing you know we’ll have a photograph of a bodybuilder on the cover of AIKI NEWS!” Well, in all honesty, the thought did cross my mind. But, alas, I felt compelled to suppress the impulse. Nonetheless, look at the photos of Sue Ann I did manage to sneak in! Pretty impressive stuff, don’t you agree! I beseech you, dear readers, permit me one further indulgence. Read on about this amazing lady! See if there isn’t really something to this aikido and muscles talk.

Background in Aikido

Our story begins with a rather “chunky” young lady, the Sue Ann I remember, who started aikido practice in 1973 looking for some way “to get in touch with her body”. Her first and current teacher, Mr. Robert Nadeau (a direct student of O-Sensei in Tokyo in the early 1960s) surprised her by treating women, not as passive, weak beings, but as if they had power, an approach which immediately struck a resonant chord with Sue Ann. What also captivated her about O-Sensei’s art was her newly acquired ability to become centered, to feel grounded, as it were, something she could only experience on the mat. This recreational activity soon became the motivating force in her life and led to her abandoning college studies to pursue aikido full-time.

Naturally, a mesomorphic type, Sue Ann learned to feel a “wholeness” and accept her natural build and strength through aikido training. For her, aikido was a way to transcend the barriers and the cliches normally associated with the male-female stereotypes. Also, the emphasis in aikido on the coexistence of opposites had a special meaning for her.

Introduction to Bodybuilding

Sue Ann’s initiation to bodybuilding was quite by accident. About three years ago, she tore ligaments in her knee and was told by her doctor that she would have to abandon aikido and restrict her physical activities to such “safe” things as machine exercises and cycling. Since at that time her whole identity was wrapped up in the martial art, her only purpose in going to the bodybuilding gym for weight training was to strengthen her injured knee. Consequently, at first she performed only leg exercises. Without giving much thought to it, Sue Ann began to imitate others in the gym and added additional weight exercises for the upper body as well. Somewhat surpisingly, she found that she enjoyed the feeling which accompanied weight workouts although it differed from what she felt on the aikido mat. There was something freeing about letting out the “attention-loving narcissistic egomaniac” (Sue Ann’s way of describing bodybuilders) which resided within her.

Sue Ann’s Winning Ways

It turned out that her bodybuilding gym was sponsoring a show about one month after she started training. After her initial reluctance, our aikidoist-cum-bodybuilder realized she wanted to be talked into competing by her training friends. To her surprise, Sue Ann won this local competition and it was readily apparent to all that this young woman had tremendous potential.

Bob Nadeau, her aikido instructor, wished to encourage Sue Ann in this new field of endeavor and went so far as to become her training partner. Bob, having pumped iron in the old days, was himself no stranger to barbell training. The rest is bodybuilding history. Sue Ann won the Ms. San Jose con-test in January 1983 after only four months of training. This was followed by a victory in the Ms. Northern California competition and a first-place in her weight class of the Ms. California contest, all with less than one year of lifting experience!

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