by Sharon Lovering
I was never much for team sports. I tried gymnastics, both as a little girl and a preteen. I enjoyed it, but I could never manage the back walkovers and back bends. I swam on the junior high swim team for a year. The following year I joined the county swim team, and got a fifth place ribbon in the 50-yard freestyle once. The next year I joined the high school band. When I went off to James Madison University, I went as much for the marching band as for the journalism program.
After graduation, and finding a job, I discovered that I missed group activities. A few days later, the local YMCA’s class catalog arrived. I pored through the catalog. A couple of pages in, something caught my eye: the Y was offering a tae kwon do class two days a week, for all ages. I checked the cost, and even with the Y’s program member fee, it was in my budget. So I joined the class.
When I showed up at the first class, I was surprised by the sheer number of people — there were about half a dozen long lines of people from the back to the front of the room. Some other new people were there, too, most wearing sweatpants and T-shirts. I was close to the back of the room, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. (I purchased a uniform from the instructors after class.) We began with warm-ups and lots of stretching. Then the instructors broke us into groups by rank; one worked with the beginners on basic stances, blocks and kicks. I had a lot to learn!
I worked hard, learning the forms and one-steps required to earn each rank, and made friends with my classmates. As we got closer to our black belt test, we practiced on our own and together, sometimes in someone’s backyard, basement or rec room. We sweated, swatted the mosquitoes, and kept practicing. On test day we were ready. When our turn came, we went up as a group and demonstrated our forms, one-step defense moves, sparring one on one, then board breaking. The testing panel watched intently. Afterward there were a number of speeches, followed by a celebration that included a huge cake. A few weeks later, we learned the results: we passed! We were thrilled to receive both our black belts and uniforms with black trim.
A few years later, I was the only one of my group still training. The club had moved to a smaller studio elsewhere in Arlington. The forms I needed to learn for second degree black belt were harder than the ones I’d learned up to then. Fortunately, I was able to get some help from the other black belts and the instructors. I worked hard and was ready when test time came that June. The testing panel called participants up by rank order, starting with the white belts. I tested solo. When it came time for board breaking, they again called us up by rank. I chose to do a flying side kick for my break. The instructors had everyone who was not testing sit along the walls to give the person breaking as much room as possible. The instructor holding my board was standing in the front left corner of the room; I started my run from the rear right to build up speed. And — CRACK! That board went flying! I passed that test, too.
As time went on, classmates moved away — some for family reasons, some for new jobs. New students came; some stayed, some left. And then one night everything changed. We received notice that the strip mall was about to be torn down, and we had to leave the little studio. That last class, we had to pack up everything into the chief instructor’s van, and make sure we took all of our stuff with us. The instructors would contact us with information about the new location for our classes. A few days later, the chief instructor called and gave me an address. On class night I went over to check it out — and it was a hair salon! As I looked at the place, I thought, “There’s no way we could fit a tae kwon do class in there.” I waited a few minutes, but nobody showed up. It was the same the following week. After a few weeks, I stopped checking.
I felt lost without an activity I’d put 8 years into. I fell into a pattern that even Olympians are guilty of — eating like I was still in training. I began to gain weight, and my health took a downward turn. My doctor repeatedly urged me to join a health club. It took me four years to follow her advice. One weekend I checked out the Sport & Health Club at Ballston. I liked what I saw — a big room for classes, a smaller room for cycling classes, and a medium-sized room for yoga and Pilates. I signed up that day. The staffer showing me around suggested I try a few different classes. She also set up an appointment for me with a trainer. I tried a class that focused on increasing strength and endurance levels, held on Tuesday evenings. The instructor guided the class through a gauntlet of activities for different muscle groups, from biceps and triceps to hamstrings and quads and everything in between.
One night, on my way out of class, I spotted a woman in a black belt uniform waiting outside the door. I’d seen the information on the martial arts class on the schedule and was curious. I approached her, bowed, and exclaimed, “Ma’am, I’ve been trying to reach you, but my emails kept bouncing. I’m interested in the class — could you tell me about it, please?” So she did, and then she gave me her name, phone number and correct email address. I explained that I had to leave right then for a church board meeting, but I planned on coming to class Thursday.
Remembering how out of place I’d felt the first time I went to tae kwon do, I pulled out my old uniform. Master Mack, the head instructor, told me I would have to start over at white belt since it had been so long since I’d trained. The class was smaller than my old club, all adults of various ranks. We started with warmups; the leader encouraged me to do what I could. After warm-ups, the group broke into smaller groups to work on rank-specific requirements. One of the higher-ranking students worked with me, checking to see how much I knew and working on basics. She was surprised to see that I still remembered the basic kicks, blocks, and punches, and was able to start me on the first form that evening.
I’ve been with Capitol Tang Soo Do since 2006. I worked my way up the ranks and earned my first degree black belt in 2012. Has it been easy? No. I’ve learned how do to a proper push-up (no, I never learned that in school; they didn’t teach us girls pushups), a dozen increasingly more difficult forms, 90 different one-step defenses (30 each for hands, feet, and self-defense), how to work with a wooden staff – and the three staff forms that go with it, how to break boards with my hands (never did that in tae kwon do) as well as my feet, competition sparring, how to do break falls and rolls, and I’m learning to work with a sword and a knife. I’ve sweated a lot, gotten a variety of injuries and worked my way back from them, and kept training. I’m currently preparing to test for second degree black belt. I was hoping it would be this fall, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit, so I don’t know when it will be. Stay tuned!