I love the Olympics. I mean I really love the Olympics. I get goose bumps during the opening and closing ceremonies and I cry at the end of the produced pieces on the athletes’ background. They have inevitably overcome some obstacle to reach the Olympics, and that inevitably cues the waterworks. To celebrate the 30th Olympiad I am launching several weeks of “Olympic Endeavors.” I will challenge myself by trying different Olympic events. This week, the Korean martial art of Taekwondo.
“Have you taken martial arts before?” my instructor Peter asked me as we stepped onto the mat. I said no, still tugging on my uniform which I thought made me look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I had walked into Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute right across the street from Fenway with absolutely no experience, and at that moment I thought maybe I had made a mistake. But Peter quickly made me feel at ease. We warmed up with some stretches, with Peter counting in Korean. Then we started with some basic forms (punches and kicks).
I think Peter could quickly tell that I was very inexperienced, and obviously had never been in a playground fist fight, because he had to tell me over and over again to keep my thumb outside my fist when I punch. We started with front kicks and jabs in the air, moved on to roundhouse kicks and blocks and eventually Peter grabbed some pads and I actually had to aim my limbs at something. I started kicking and punching, very worried that I would hurt Peter. Why did I think my newbie kicks would injure a black belt? I also managed to lose my balance several times mid-kick which left me flailing various arms or legs in the air.
Grand Master Jae Kim, who founded the institute 38 years ago, came over to give me a few pointers. Both he and Peter picked up on the fact that I was holding my breath while going through the series of kicks and punches. They both told me to relax. Was it that obvious, I wondered, that I am an up-tight perfectionist? I guess so. I took some deep breaths and just tried to absorb all the lessons being presented. Like so many of my past “adventures,” as soon as I stopped trying to be good at Taekwondo, I actually became good at Taekwondo! While I wasn’t getting nearly as much extension, speed or impact as Peter, my kicks and punches weren’t too shabby if I do say so myself.
Almost more interesting than actually doing Taekwondo is the history of the sport, its lightning fast trajectory on to the international stage and the fact that Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute is a destination for people from across the globe who know – and want to know — Taekwondo.
Taekwondo is relatively new as sports go. It was created in 1955, but is based on martial art traditions that go back centuries. According to Mr. Kim, the sport spread around the world after soldiers who fought in the Korean War noticed how “tough” the Korean soldiers were and realized that Taekwon-do was an important part of their physical fitness routine. Taekwondo became an Olympic sport in 2000; meaning it only took the martial art 45 years to go from its infancy to biggest international sporting stage there is. Twelve years later, 128 athletes will compete in eight weight classifications (four for men, four for women) in these London games.
In addition to learning “forms” or “patterns” (the individual moves that I learned with Peter), The Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute offers instruction in the full spectrum of sparring (when you use those forms against an opponent). There are several sparring styles — all with different rules – including the type featured in the Olympics. There is also so-called “Full Range Sparring” which utilizes striking as well as grappling techniques. This type of sparring has become so popular that when my instructor, Peter, visited Korea last year everyone wanted him to teach them what they referred to as “Boston Style Sparring.” This anything-goes style originated at Mr. Kim’s studio in Fenway and helped it earn the honor of being named the top Taekwondo center in the world in 2009. Mr. Kim now has 15 centers all across the globe, and he teaches classes daily at the Boston location.
After going through the forms with Peter I watched other students in their classes and even got to watch some Olympic style sparring. It is intense. I could recognize some of the kicks and punches I learned in their movements, but barely. I really enjoyed my day of Taekwondo, but I had even more fun learning about the sport itself, its origins and how far it has come in such a short time. I think I may even go back for some group classes.
While I did receive a complementary introductory lesson, I was not compensated in any other way for this post. Many thanks to Mr. Kim, Mr. Smith, Peter, Christine and Jen at Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute. Fellow Bostonians, we have a really amazing martial arts resource nestled right next to Fenway. If you are at all interested in Taekwondo I highly recommend you check it out. Olympic Taekwondo competitions start on August 8th, tune in. I will be!