By Jeff Pine
I was first introduced to Taekwondo way back in 1972. A friend of mine attended a dojo on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder on the second floor of an old building above a tourist shop. I was twenty five, had just gone through my first divorce, was living the drug-saturated lifestyle common at the time, and desperately needed something to give me a morale boost. Taekwondo sounded appealing, so I gave it a try.
The experience didn’t last very long. I had never been particularly athletic, nor was I very disciplined in my youth, and being a cigarette smoker at the time on top of my other failings, I only achieved a yellow belt and lasted about 6 months before it all started to seem too difficult, so I dropped out.
Short though my first Taekwondo experience was, it stuck with me, and not long afterwards became important to my ability to cope with the life I found myself living. I had been accepted into the U.S. Peace Corps and sent to Iran. This, of course, was while the Shah was still in power and Iran was an important ally of the U.S. Though an ally, it was still a very foreign country at first to a young man from “the states”, with an alien and often intimidating culture and a language I could barely speak or even understand. Knowing that I had a modicum of self defense ability allowed me to walk those strange streets among those strange people without fear. I might not know much Taekwondo, but I probably knew more than the otherwise somewhat frightening people around me.
Although I didn’t go back into a dojo until years later, I practiced my Ech chan cho bu, my Ech chan e bu, and my kicks and punches on my own on occasion, and that gave me the confidence I needed not only to complete my Peace Corp experience, but also to travel around the Middle East, Europe, and Asia after it had ended. I traveled through a dozen or more foreign countries around the world during that period of my life, often traveling alone, and I credit Taekwondo with helping me feel confident enough to do so.
In that way Taekwondo became an integral if somewhat buried part of my psyche, so 10 years later, when I was a commercial real estate broker and strange circumstance sent me a customer who needed a location for a Taekwondo dojo, I leapt back into the martial art a second time. Again it didn’t last very long. I still smoked, I got tendonitis in one of my knees, and my life was too hectic, and – whatever. I just wasn’t ready to get into it yet for the long haul, I guess. But I did earn my green belt.
Then, another 10 years later, my two youngest sons expressed an interest in the sport. They were only in elementary school but were certainly old enough, and the Clear Creek Gilpin Academy of Martial Arts was convenient, friendly, and affordable. My wife and I started taking them to TKD class every Tuesday and Thursday evening. For years I sat along the sidelines and watched as Sean and Ryan earned first their yellow belts, then their green and blue belts. It often occurred to me that I should be out there on the floor with them instead of sitting on the side watching. I was getting flabby and overweight, and the exercise would certainly do me good. It was admittedly hard for me to achieve the impetus to make the move, I was after all getting a bit old and my sons were by then way more advanced than I would be if I joined in, which was a little embarrassing, but I did eventually get up the nerve to do so. Sean earned his red belt, and then in 2004 his black. Now, after quitting and restarting yet one more time, and after almost eight additional years, at age 65 I’m finally going to achieve my black belt, too.
I relate this story to you because of how strange it seems to me to finally be achieving this honored goal after having dropped out and then reentered the program so many times and over so many years. I was in my mid twenties at the beginning and now I’m 65. In my case luck and circumstance certainly had parts to play. In a way it’s almost as if I’m finally earning the belt in spite of myself! Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve put in the years of classes, practiced all the necessary hours at home, and passed all the required belt tests just like everyone else to get here, but how odd it seems that opportunities to study TKD kept being presented to me in my life, and that each time they were I felt compelled to accept them, even if only, at first, for a little while. That got me wondering why it is that only a very few people who begin the study and practice of Taekwondo stick with it despite all the hard work, endless repetitions, spent hours, and accumulating costs, and then eventually earn black belts, while most drop out for good somewhere along the line. What motivates a small percentage of the people out there to take up TKD in the first place, while most have no interest in doing so? Are there other people who quit and then restart TKD over and over again as I did, or do other students usually just stick with it straight through from white to black? I felt the need to find answers to these questions, so I asked TKD black belt TKD practitioners I know about their personal histories and motivations studying the martial art.
I guess it should be no surprise that teenage and young adult black belts I talked with all started learning the martial art young, and then studied and practiced it straight through with little or no pause until they had worked their ways through the bright colored belts. Otherwise they could not have gotten their black belts while still so young. It is interesting, though, how they all cited the importance of their parent’s encouragement to their eventual success. Each of the young black belts also mentioned that the sense of community and friendly relationships within the school were essential in their dedication to the sport and to their final success.
With the older adults, the stories are much more varied. I only talked with a few adult black belts at the Mountain Academy of Martial Arts, so my sample population was admittedly small, but I nevertheless found the results interesting. I seems that about half the adult black belts began to study TKD and then continued unwaveringly straight through until they reached their goal, while the other half, like myself, started and stopped several times for varying reasons over the course of many years.
In the first group, Grand Master Rankin said that he first began studying TKD at the age of seventeen, and never faltered in his dedication to the martial art, always fitting it in even while going to college, working at his career, and living a complicated modern life. Mr. Beasley started later, after having already served in the Marine Corps, and became interested only after his son expressed a desire to study Taekwondo. Once having started though, he also never wavered in this pursuit of a black belt. Mrs. Rich likewise became dedicated to achieving the black belt from the very beginning of her association with TKD, and faithfully pursued it from white to black.
On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who took considerably longer. Mr. Kruger said that he originally studied Kaolin Karate 30 years ago. Then, a few years later, studied a second martial art for a short time, and finally took up TKD only a few years ago when he felt the need for more exercise. He liked the fact that TKD provided him with that exercise while also teaching him a valuable life skill. Mr. Dunham told me that he began studying Taekwondo when he was 14. He went to many dojos over the years, but never stayed with any of them long because he wasn’t totally satisfied with the quality of their staffs or their teaching techniques. He said that he eventually discovered MAMA, researched it, liked what he found, and then “went for it”. He’s obviously very happy that he did!
In conclusion, I guess I’ve found that there are few truly common threads in the personal stories of TKD black belts. Each of us is unique, and therefore has a completely unique story. Some of us are young and some old, some male and some female. There are different ethnic backgrounds in students at MAMA, and even students with disabilities. With some of us, the drive and circumstances that took us through the belt rankings from white to black was continuous and unyielding, while for others, for whatever reason, our personal interest or circumstances resulted in having the experience broken into a number of segments. The only totally common thread I did find was that in all of us the need to succeed in the martial art was strong enough to drive us in some way to ultimately be triumphant.