It was 6AM when my alarm clock rang on a freezing cold winter morning in Korea. I rolled out of bed, brushed my teeth and walked outside my apartment to a pitch black sky. I couldn’t feel my face due to the brutal wind chill of 5 degrees (-14 Celsius). I headed to the bus station to meet my Taekwondo Master.
We jumped on a 1 hour bus to Kukkiwon Stadium in Gangnam – better known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters.
This was my time to shine.
I was so nervous that I could feel my heart beating out of my chest. All my skills were about to be put to the test in front of several hundred people.
I had been training Taekwondo for 4 days a week over the last 12 months in my rural Korean village.
But what was going to happen when I had to demonstrate what I’ve learned on a big stage, in front of 3 grandmaster judges and hundreds of people in the crowd?
My master and I were one of the first people to arrive at Kukkiwon stadium. Chills spread through my veins from the moment I laid eyes inside the building. This place is the MECCA for Taekwondo in the entire world. It’s the Madison Square Garden. It’s the Wembley Stadium. I couldn’t stop staring at the massive sign saying “World Taekwondo Headquarters” and all of the country flags that were represented on the walls. This was as legit as it gets.
I was the only foreigner in the entire building. About 400 kids were anxiously waiting to be tested for black belt, and their families were quickly filling up the seats.
Everywhere I went inside the facility, I could overhear people gossiping about me in Korean. They were saying things like “Look, there’s a foreigner!” and “What is that guy doing here?”
As I was waiting for my name to be called down to the floor, I kept running through the 8 routines in my head to mentally prepare for the test.
After 2 hours of waiting, I was rushed down to the floor to be the next person tested. I didn’t have any more time to think. Anxiety started to take over, but I tried to remain as calm as possible.
First, I had to do a series of kicks which I passed. Then the judges randomly chose 2 routines to perform with 100% accuracy (of the 8 that I had memorized). Finally, I had to wear pads and fight another girl using only kicking techniques. The test went smoothly!
I screwed up a bit on the memorization part, but I still felt that I did well overall. My Taekwondo master even told me that I passed the test, but I still won’t officially find out for a few more weeks. If I do pass, then I get my name in both Korean and English engraved on a black belt, and a certificate of proof that I did it.
Training to be a black belt in Taekwondo in Korea was one of the best decisions of my entire life. I am felling happy and as confident as I’ve ever been. And yeah, I can kick some ass too!!
The following are 4 more reasons why it was so awesome to train to be a black belt in Korea.
1. Taekwondo is a Korean Martial Art
In the Korean language, Tae (태) means “to strike or break with the foot,” kwon (권) means “to strike or break with the fist,” and do (도) means a “way”, “method”, or “path.”
So put it all together, and Taekwondo loosely translates to “the way of the foot and the hand. Pretty neat, eh?
Taekwondo originated in Korea in the 1940s. The martial art combines combat and self-defense techniques, through intense conditioning and exercise. Taekwondo has a huge emphasis on kicking techniques and punches thrown from a mobile stance.
It’s safe to say that I trained with the best of the best.
Everyday training included a unique combination of kicking exercises, open hand strikes, joint locks, and different kinds of take downs. In addition, we worked on self defense techniques from over a dozen positions.
For example: We practiced situations where someone was grabbing my wrist, and I learned how to reverse the move and flip them over to the ground within less than a second.
Not a word of English was spoken in class. All of the commands, including coaching, drills and techniques, are shouted in Korean. It was awesome.
Taekwondo uses intense conditioning in addition to the kicks and self defense.
The room that we practiced in was pretty small, like the size of a normal school classroom, but we sure made use of every inch inside the room.
Some of the activities that we did were “circuit training,” where everyone sprints from corner to corner doing a variety of kicks, somersaults and cart wheels along the way. We sometimes do that non-stop for 20 minutes.
Before I started doing Taekwondo, I could barely touch my toes. Now, I can reach 6 inches past them.
Doing hundreds of kicks everyday have turned my hamstrings into noodles as far as flexibility goes. I have never been this flexible in my life!
I can also kick over my head and I never thought in a million years that I’d be able to do this. It’s my goal to keep the conditioning going in the future.
Here is a photo of me warming up with the little elementary kids. They are SO adorable!
4. My Taekwondo Master
Daekwon Yeom, my Taekwondo Master, has become one of my close friends. He is the nicest, most caring person that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. His English is minimal, but enough to communicate along with my Korean skills.
He has done so much for me over the last year. He brought me homemade soup to my house when I was sick. He lent me his bike for a year to ride back and fourth between school, home and Taekwondo. He bought me a huge red einter coat when he found out that mine was stolen. And he pulled some strings for me to take this black belt test, because I missed the originialy deadline due to traveling.
Here is a photo of me and him on my test day. I’m wearing the bright red jacket that he bought me! I will never forget him!
Moral of the story
None of this would have been possible if I never took the courage to walk into that Taekwondo gym and ask to get lessons. If you don’t step out of your comfort zone, then you won’t have as many incredible opportunities to accomplish great things in your life.
The same goes for that time when I was in Beijing on the most epic 24 hour layover, and I approached a crew of Chinese dudes on the street who eventually treated me to bottle service in the best nightclub in the city. As goes for that time when I was in ate an entire live octopus in Korea.
Do you recognize a pattern here? All of these situations came about because I stepped out of my comfort zone, and now I have amazing stories to share for the rest of my life.
I highly recommend giving it a try 🙂
Here is a video that was taken on my final Taekwondo class, so you can see what kind of training I did behind the scenes. I got a black black at the end of class!