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5th Dan Essay

5th Dan Candidate
December 2012

This month marks my 28th year as a martial artist studying Taekwondo under the direction of various instructors associated with and including Grand Master Pak and Iowa State University. I have been honored with such awards as, Student of the Year, Junior Leader of the Year, several recognitions of outstanding service and dedication, and outstanding performance and achievement. Having been a black belt since 1988 and an ISU Martial Arts Alumni with training and competition experience that has yielded me insane quantities of plastic trophies with little gold men kicking in a most unnatural form, I have often been approached by those enthusiastically interested in Taekwondo. Over the years the most single asked question I can recall is, “What does it take to become a black belt”? The answer can never delivered in a single breath.

I often describe the physical and mental characteristics required to preserve through the training and commitment required of Taekwondo, as that is usually what someone is most interested in hearing. To the layperson, a black belt typically describes the embodiment an individual who has spent a great deal training, who has a reputable instructor that can vouch for the individual’s capabilities or character, and whose skills can be quantifiably measured. It isn’t until you are facing your first promotion to black belt that you begin understand it isn’t an end of a goal or the conclusion of a journey, it is the journey, itself. Becoming a black belt requires one to continue look past the journey and ask the questions within themselves.

Most realize one cannot go to the Internet and merely buy a black belt to “become” one. The journey cannot be bought or traded. It must be experienced by the individual and no two journeys are ever completely alike. We all know that a black belt is only the beginning of a much greater path. It is an outward representation of character and confidence. It symbolizes the dedication and hard work of a student as a learning teacher. As a black belt, one should always be humbly learning. The introspection and process of education never ends. We should strive to learn something new every day. A black belt can learn a lot from teaching and coaching other students. The mastery of technique is often achieved only after one can effectively share that knowledge with another.

Above anything else a black belt is teacher and a leader. As a teacher we serve as role models, whom other students look to with admiration, wishing to model themselves after while hoping one day to become black belts themselves. Leadership can extend well past the dojang and into our everyday life. Other students and our community at large will look upon us with greater expectations. And, they should.   After all, we’re black belts. It isn’t our physical might that makes as mighty, it is our character.

The tenets of Taekwondo aren’t merely bullet points in a student handbook and must be lived and explored in every aspect of our lives. The lessons and values gained through the journey of Taekwondo are without limits. Be it desiring greater levels of physical fitness, cardiovascular performance or stamina, mental focus and concentration or merely being a fun, well-rounded healthy activity to engage in with your family, our journeys are what mold us into the black belts we once looked to for guidance and leadership. The Black belts we hoped to one day become.

My journey began in 1985 with Rice Taekwondo and Master Ron Rice in a community center in an incredibly small town. It was over Christmas break in my first year in junior high in Charles City, Iowa, when I asked my parents if I could start taking Taekwondo. I didn’t know if there were even any Taekwondo schools in our area. I only knew that Ralph Macchio was all over the big screen as Karate Kid was enjoying its immediate popularity and if the martial arts could make Daniel-San, “The best around”, then I wanted to be just like him. I was interested in the martial arts for all the typical reasons a 12 year old would be; I didn’t want to be picked on, I wanted to be able to defend myself against bullies, and more than anything else I wanted to be able to walk down the hallways of a new school and not be afraid.

I took quickly to the classes and training and was on many occasions described as having lots of “natural ability”. Whether it was natural ability, Master Rice’s exceptional teachings, or simply having watched more than my fair share of Bruce Lee and much to my embarrassment today, American Ninja movies, I am not entirely certain. I was still a white belt with two months of classes logged when I participated in my first tournament at the Ames Racquetball and Fitness center, hosted by Master Shilkaitis. If your feet have never suffered the execution of poomsae or sparring on the unforgiving porous texture of a tennis court floor then count yourself fortunate. The popularity of Taekwondo in the 80s meant there was no shortage of students in classes or competitions. Sparring at this time was conducted with corner judges with white/red flags and competition was stopped anytime there was a point observed. Matches were single rounds with the person with the most points at the end of three minutes, or the first competitor to reach 3 points, declared the winner.

My very first experience with sparring was in a match-up against an orange belt. As a white belt, this was rather terrifying. I mean…an orange belt! He probably has a good nine months of experience and training over me. I was optimistic and in good spirits, hoping to do my best and ready to be proud of myself no matter what, but never the less quite nervous. My competitor had approached me a few minutes before our first match and let me know he wished me well, wished me good luck, and offered some friendly advice that when I lost to not feel too badly about it as he was an orange belt and been to a few tournaments before. The center referee called out, “Si-jak!”, and my journey as a competitor began.

My first match didn’t last more than 30 seconds. A low-high roundhouse kick; stop the match, judges score? Blue, to the head, good control, two points. A few moments later another low-high roundhouse kick; stop the match, judges score? Blue, score to the head, good control, two points. Match over. Chong Seung. Winner; white belt. I had overcome any hesitation and fear of facing a superior opponent and had a fun time doing so. This competition stuff was amazing. I was hooked. The orange belt student was astounded, dumbfounded, a little bit embarrassed. How could he have lost? To a white belt, no less! This first tournament experience, while personally gratifying to the 12 year old in me, served as a fundamental lesson along my journey that we can learn from anyone in any situation; even from a white belt. It is an experience that I often reflect upon when I think I or another student has gotten too confident, we’ve mistakenly believed we’ve grown as much as we can, and that we have nothing left to accomplish.

My journey as a martial artist over the first several years with Master Rice was filled with an abundance of experiences and knowledge gained, not only of Taekwondo but of myself. I didn’t always win competitions, but I was always learning. It is in our defeat where we learn what is required of us in order to grow, to improve, to become more than we already are. I had the opportunity to experience no fewer than six local and state championship tournaments a year, to include multiple Junior Olympics across the United States, numerous demonstrations and presentations showcasing not only my skills but the benefits of Taekwondo. With December 1988 and my 1st Recommended black belt testing approaching, I thought my journey was about reach its climax. I was about to obtain the rank of an “expert”, the coveted black belt I had sought for so many years. Surely, as the sun would rise that day immediately following the day of my promotion, I would begin a new phase of my learning. I was only vaguely aware of it at the time, but looking back it is when the teaching and leadership aspect of Taekwondo became a focal point in my journey.

I was 16 years old when I became a black belt. At the age of 17, I earned a Bronze medal in Senior Nationals and a spot to participate in the U.S. Team Trials and U.S. Olympic Festival. I remember the 16th U.S. National Championships as an incredibly physically challenging, practically marathon-level event. The preliminary eliminations took all day and it came to a point where I quit trying to monitor the brackets and simply waited for my name to be called to the next ring. My soreness and injuries were mounting; muscles and tendons burned, numbness engulfed my left leg and foot. I found myself firing roundhouse kicks having almost no feeling in my leg. I would end up not being able to walk normally for weeks. I ultimately found myself having placed in the finals without even realizing it. It wasn’t until they called my name to pose for photos on the steps that I realized where I actually ended up in the competition. Competing in the Fin Weight division and against such opponents as Juan Moreno, then a silver medalist in the ’88 Olympics, I was pleased with my performance. I didn’t win, but I learned and I grew as a martial artist. I never set out to define myself as a career competitor and the successes I achieved were a great honor and the direct result of the dedication of my instructors, coaches, and teammates who never let me accept failure. Success in Taekwondo can be measured by your perseverance and unwillingness to quit. No one will win all the time and a loss doesn’t mean you failed. It means you have an opportunity to improve and to grow. You only fail when you give up, when you concede, when you yield.

In the years that followed, I would graduate high school, promote to 2nd Dan in July of 1992, attend ISU and begin training directly with Grand Master Pak in preparation for NCTAs. The multiple workouts per day, several days a week, in the gloriously hot wrestling room of Beyer Hall are memories I cherish to this day. I competed and won the Gold in the Fin Weight division at the 16th National Collegiate Championships in Palatine, IL. It will mark the last time I competed nationally as in subsequent years I elected to devote more of my personal time to my academics and professional development. In April of ‘94 I made life-changing decision that caught my family and friends by surprise. I signed a contract to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps and shipped out to Recruit Training Depot San Diego a month later. I spent May-July in the California heat being indoctrinated into the Marine Corps and military life. Upon graduation from Recruit Training with honors, I attended the Marine Corps Combat Training at the School of Infantry for two months of additional hand-to-hand combat and advanced weapons/tactics training.

My involvement with martial arts and Taekwondo didn’t end with my entrance to the Marine Corps. My rank and competition history caught the eye of Master De La Rosa, a former Drill Instructor, Director and Guard Chief for MCB Camp Pendleton, who had been teaching Taekwondo for the Marines for 18 years was heading up the U.S. Marine Corps Taekwondo Team. Master De La Rosa was responsible for evaluating and selecting the team of Marines who would compete in the Navy/Marine Corps Championships, as well as U.S. Senior Nationals where the USMC was represented. It was initially intended that I would captain the USMC National Team and represent the Marine Corps in Taekwondo competitions but an unfortunate armor piercing grenade shrapnel injury requiring four surgeries to repair my hand, arm, and hip changed those priorities. Under the recommendation of the U.S. Navy Medical Corps and under orders from the USMC, I was barred from competing or engaging in any activity which might adversely affect my operational status or risk further injury. My 3rd and 4th Dan promotions were through association with the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) and my collaboration and involvement in further development of the Marine Corps Manual Close Combat training curriculum.

The USMC Martial Arts Program doesn’t have a belt structure like anything a Kukkiwon-associated Taekwondo school would be familiar with. While the program closely mirrors the Kukkiwon curriculum in terms of technique and application, it includes additional requirements for rank advancement with focus combat hitting skills, close quarters defense against bayonet and knife attacks, and defense and use of numerous ‘weapons of opportunity’, all amounting to a series of one-step sparring that is driven by operational military proficiency. A condition of my participation was that I would be permitted to wear my “Iowa State Univ/Yong Chin Pak” black belt, versus their standard issue canvas web belts, and be permitted to ignore uniform regulations in terms of Taekwondo participation. Promotions within the USMC Martial Arts Program are tied to military rank and include such requirements as, “Writing a paper on a significant battle”, as well as a paper, “detailing what an individual has done to improve the Marine Corps, the unit, or individual Marines as it pertains to the three disciplines (mental, character, physical)”.

The Marine Corps promoted me to 4th Dan in 1998 in connection with a meritorious promotion recommendation to Sergeant, just prior to my end of active duty, when I entered the Individual Ready Reserve component and moved back to Iowa. In early 1999, I began driving to/from Ames twice a week to workout with Grand Master Pak and reintegrate myself into the ISU Martial Arts community. I did this for several months until gas prices jumped over $4/gal and I couldn’t cost justify the ~180mi. round trip each week, let alone the financial and personal time costs involved in travelling from West Des Moines. I resorted to working out and training on my own, as I had outside of normal class schedules since Rice Taekwondo, anyway.

In late 2003, I visited Farrell’s U.S. Martial Arts to talk with Master Farrell about the possibility of working out with his school. However, their curriculum and class structure didn’t really fit my needs and it wasn’t until 2009 when family members became interested in starting Taekwondo that my involvement with Farrell’s cemented itself. I initially started going to help teach the classes my family would be attending and get in a couple of the advanced level classes per week, myself. In a short period of time, I again found myself working out 4-5 days a week and averaging 1-3 classes per day.

While I would come to learn my body required much more time to warm-up and stretch and that injuries would take longer to heal than I had previously remembered, the return to a Pak Family environment was very gratifying and rewarding. Over my years involved with Taekwondo, I have had the benefit of being associated with several different organizations and having receiving training from many different instructors. I continue to frequently workout with both Farrell’s U.S. Martial Arts and Voorhees TKD, and on occasion when visiting I try to attend a Rice Taekwondo workout, as well. There are many facets to Taekwondo training whose focus can vary from one school to the next and I have been fortunate to have worked under several exceptional leaders within and outside of the Pak Family martial arts. Some instructors have been very structured and follow well-documented and consistent teaching methods. Others are more versatile, flexible in their delivery, and are better adapted at addressing the unique requirements of each individual student. I have found the most successful involve a combination of both structure and blend of fun, interactive exercise regimens across their curriculum. No one style is necessarily wrong or better than another but merely exemplify the benefits of a diverse group of leaders with a passion for Taekwondo and the sharing of knowledge and experience. While the unique leadership qualities of each organization and the different styles of instruction and concentration of training vary, a common theme of family, togetherness and unity remains constant.

Since my beginning in Taekwondo I have seen numerous shifts in focus and concentration of training and curriculum development across multiple organizations. While workouts might once have been very competition focused and performance-based for teens and young adults, quite often modern Taekwondo schools reflect a student base whose interest are more a contributing factor of an overarching holistic healthy lifestyle. It has become commonplace for any dojang to have a wide scope of ages, often between 4 and 70 years old training side by side. It isn’t the necessarily the sporty atmosphere of the 80s and thankfully not the kind of classes Sensei John Kreese of the Cobra Kai would have been familiar with. Student demographics and priorities have evolved over time and successful Taekwondo schools have learned to adapt and grow. Taekwondo is described as a lifetime sport and that has never been more true. Our lives are not static and the ability to improvise, overcome, and adapt are crucial.

To achieve our goals and be successful in our endeavors, from either the point of view of the student or the instructor, we must continually motivate ourselves and others, work hard and push past that line we thought we couldn’t reach. We must strive to learn something new every day, to be better than we were yesterday. You won’t always be successful, but for as long as you never quit you will never fail. Often times our passion for Taekwondo takes up many of our weekends and time away from our families than we are comfortable with, but the results are worth it. The benefits of martial arts extend far beyond that of mere physical fitness. The positive effects of Taekwondo should reverberate through the rest of our lives even in ways we don’t always understand.

My experiences through Taekwondo and Pak Family martial arts has been an incredibly valuable asset to me in my life. A goal of any instructor should be to encourage and motivate students in order to reach their full potential. A leader should inspire and groom their students independence, in order to cultivate the diversity necessary to form a strong team. I have been positively affected by many great leaders within the organization, not the least of which includes Grand Master Pak, in addition to his many associated instructors and master instructors that share his passion. Through Taekwondo I have learned an essential role of leadership is to provide a foundation for succession. Whether our contributions be centered on class instruction, conducting seminars, or training and coaching students in competitions, each and every action we take adds to collective leadership quotient of the current and future success of Taekwondo. Each approaching student will one day become the teacher and leader of others. Our impact into their own journeys is neither trivial nor inconsequential.

Our black belt journeys, each individually unique although sharing common characteristics, unilaterally reflect outward in our attitudes and behaviors and black belts. It isn’t poise or technique that defines us as martial artists. It is our adherence to the tenets and their integration into our lives. I have been a black belt for more years of my life than not and I simply cannot remember not being one. It not merely defines what I am, but who I am as an individual. Taekwondo is ever changing and evolving. The types of students who commit themselves to its study may shift over time, but their key characteristics will remain constant. The principals and teachings of our leaders shall remain within our core being our entire lives. The knowledge and experience passed to and from them is a torch we all bear the responsibility of carrying.

No one student or teacher is a master of everything. It takes the journey itself to describe what it takes to become a black belt and it is the perseverance of travelling along the path, despite obstacles, setbacks, and challenges, that give our belts their true value. Without the integrity and character at the heart of the martial artist our black belts are mere swatches of fabric. It isn’t necessary for the prospective student to fully understand what it takes to become a black belt, but instead why it is important they find the strength within themselves to start their own journeys and begin to discover that answer for themselves.