Second Degree, 50 Years Old

I have made a career of speaking to groups of people, but none are as special as you are to me. And none are as meaningful and memorable. I’m honored to have Master Meanie here and simultaneously sad that he has only a couple days to be among this amazing community that I’ve been with for more than four years. And thanks to my family and friends in the VIP section.

During my tenure as a 1st degree black belt I learned three lessons and discovered three truths. The first lesson I learned was that I had a lot left to learn.

The second thing I learned was left-handed one-steps.

I often feel as if the left side of my body belongs to someone else. If I were choosing sides for any game, I would choose my left side last. The left side of my body is a necessary evil to prop up my right side–useful for cosmetic symmetry, but otherwise it just gets in the way. I am not and “ambi-turner.”

But the left-handed one-steps (along with an injured right shoulder) have given me an opportunity to explore the other side of me.  I had to cross over to the other side of the tracks that run down the center of AllanTown. What I found there was…surprisingly familiar. A mirror image of myself. My right side began to teach my left side what it knows. A conversation was begun. Communication channels were opened. I’ve discovered my left side isn’t bad, just different.  And if my left side is awkward, timid, and embarrassed, it is more so from neglect than anything else.

While I have always considered my right side to be “dominant,” that’s really a misnomer. Because in a way it is our weak sides that actually dominate us. And really it is our perceived weaknesses that dominate us by cutting us off from all the unexplored parts of who we are and all the unused resources we harbor on the “other” neglected sides of ourselves.

My third lesson is that being a black belt is as much about revisiting old skills as it is learning new skills. A successful martial artist does not have a “been-there-done- that” attitude. The successful martial artist cannot get bored. This doesn’t mean doing Chun Jee (mindlessly) over and over a hundred times. It means doing it one time (mindfully), and always doing it better than the time before. I often say that the most innovative poets are those who see the world as if seeing it for the very first time. Maybe that’s what being a black belt is too. The more you know the more freedom you have to forget what you’ve learned, and re-learn it from a whole new perspective.

You begin to understand how every skill we learn is a scaffold allowing you to reach some higher place. Holding your stance a little deeper. Lifting your knee a little higher. Getting through the left side of Saju Maki. None of these accomplishments are an end in themselves, but a means to an even greater end. You begin to see how mastery is not a destination but a dance.

Three truths have remained constant from white belt to black belt and beyond. The first Truth is that Success is not the absence of mistakes, it is the presence of excellence. Bowing onto the mat is your opportunity to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Stand up straight. Focus. Relax. Breath deeply. Kiyop loudly. Be present. Your martial arts practice is not something done to you; it is something that you do.

The second Truth is that, as a rule, growth and self-awareness can only be found somewhere outside your comfort zone. Like limits of a growing city, expanding and swallowing up the nearby boroughs, my comfort zone has grown from a quaint hamlet to a thriving metropolis. This expansion was gradual and imperceptible at the time. But from my 2nd Degree perspective I can look back to see how much the city limits of AllanTown have grown, and I can look ahead to see how much more is possible.

Truth number three. Master Morris uses the term “imprinting” to describe how we can envision ourselves moving like one of our fellow practitioners. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever imprinted Ethan Morris. Now imagine everyone else here who has inspired you in some way, through their skill or their commitment or their concentration or their smile or the way they help others or their family dynamic or the way they show up to every class.) By exhibiting excellence yourself and opening your eyes to the excellence in others, you establish relationships , on and off the mat, that impact your world for the better.

My main goal for the next stage of my practice is to stop worrying about all the things I do not know and start wondering about all the things I’ve yet to learn and accomplish . Amazingly enough, worry and wonder feel the same in your body. The same butterflies and uncertainty. You cannot change the feeling, but you can change how you name it. Maybe being a 2nd degree black belt for me will simply mean transforming worry into wonder. Skill-wise my aim is to add more vertical height to my jumps. To become more proficient with wrist-locks, throws, and escapes. To increase the power, speed, and accuracy of my kicks. To add more combinations to my sparring.

I also plan on practicing smarter. I will rely less on strength and more on technique .I want to incorporate greater breath control and relaxation in my movements. I will continue to increase my flexibility and balance with yoga, and increase my core strength and awareness through Pilates. I will continue to hug my kittens and get to know my tennis ball, really well.

Which is a good segue as I conclude with a few thank-yous. Thanks to two master instructors in their own respective disciplines, Amy Dowling and Donna

Hollingshead, who have allowed me to include yoga and Pilates as an essential part of my TKD practice.

Thanks to all of my fellow martial artists. Your feedback and friendship make my practice and my life complete. Typically the black belts are lined up in the front row with our backs turned. We are there, in part, as a model for the lower belts, but you may not be aware of how inspiring you are to us.

Thanks to the other black belts. There is no time to catalogue all the things I have learned from each one of you. I hope by now you know who you are. It is a slippery slope to start naming names, but here goes. To Lisa Phillips, who has been my friend, and official Bobbsey Twin, from White Belt to White Russian. To Tony Morris, Batsheva Meiri, and Michael Fortini whose guidance in our Master Mind group has helped me channel all the positivity of my practice into my personal and professional life.

Thanks to Mark Meiri and Ethan Morris, who have taught me a lot by explaining things verbally, and even more by simple example. Michael Dickinson, David Kareken, and Thabiti Sabahive: What can I say? Your lessons have been as meaningful and memorable as they have been, sometimes, painful. Whenever any one of you say, “Hey, Allan, check this out…” I know I’m about to receive a month of knowledge in a 5-minute lesson.

The official staff, Amy Dexter, Elizabeth Goyer, Michael Dickinson, and Tony Morris. All of you are exemplary practitioners and effective teachers. You are like the Martial Arts version of The Justice League: Each of you is a super hero in your own right, but working together you seem unstoppable and invincible.

And if the Sun Soo staff is the Justice League: who else is Super Man but Tony Morris. It takes a brilliant businessman to create a thriving, sustainable business. But it takes a visionary to create a thriving, sustainable community with the potential to grow into something larger than himself.

As for my family. Now, y’all know I am their father and I may be biased, but I think I have three of the coolest kids on the planet. Each of them is inspiring to me in his or her own right. I’m lucky to share a martial arts practice with my two boys. I must thank Simon and Ethan for a thousand one-steps in the living room, forms work on the back deck, and sparring in the kitchen. Those of you who are able to practice with family members have some idea what a once in a lifetime opportunity that is. Ethan was the child who first started at Sun Soo and who inspired the rest of us to join  as well. Testing for this 2nd degree black belt with Ethan will give us a common bond that will last both our lifetimes.

In our family of five, we have created a sort of sixth member, an entity made up of a little piece of each of us, and named JESGA, from the first letters of our names from youngest to oldest.

So in honor of my family I will break my boards in JESGA order. In all but the last I’ll be breaking through 2 boards at once. In honor of Jameson’s gymnastic acrobatics I will do a right jump spin sidekick. In honor of left-handed Ethan’s love of spinning breaks that look good but have questionable real-world application, I will do a left-footed spinning axe kick; in honor of Simon’s historic double-jump front kick, I will do a single jump front kick. In honor of my wife Ginger finishing graduate school, a left-handed hammer fist. In honor of myself, a right-handed knife hand. And finally, I will do a step-behind side kick power break through three boards, in honor of my other family, all of you at Sun Soo, who have been my friends and my inspiration both on and off the mat.

First Degree Black Belt, 46 Years Old

My journey to black belt has been an interesting one at least for me. A journey filled with extended rest stops, detours and even changes in destination. To best understand the journey we need to take a trip in time. Back to the prehistoric ages. Back to the time of pre-Google, pre-Internet, pre-home computer or as my oldest son once asked…Dad did you have color TV back in the day?

I was 10 years old. I loved Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Kung Fu movies. After all, what kid doesn’t want to be a martial arts hero and I was fully committed to the 1 month of training necessary to get my black belt.

So my mother signed me up and took me to the only show in town. A Karate studio. I remember being intimidated. I was one of the youngest there and everyone seemed very serious.

To appreciate my story I need to explain a little about my original Karate Instructor. At that time my instructor held 5th degree black belt in two different style of Karate (Now he is a 9th in both styles) a 4th degree in Tae Kwon Do and a first degree in Kung Fu. He was a professional Karate fighter ranked as the number one light heavyweight in the US by one Karate Association. He had fought in 300 fights, winning or placing in every one and he preferred bare knuckle fighting.

So back to the story. After a couple of private lessons to learn the basics I was ready to learn the super duper tremendous jump flying inverted spinning kick that I had seen on a recent Kung Fu movie.

Unfortunately things didn’t go quite as planned. During one of my first classes the instructor had all of the students form a circle about 15 feet across. In the middle, he placed his star black belt student on the outside edge of the circle he placed three other students. He then explained that we were going to play a game.

The game worked with the three non-black belts on the edge, walking across the circle. If they encountered the black belt in the middle they had to fight.

The instructor then turned off the lights and said “go”. I took the instructors command of “go” to heart and that was the end of my martial arts experience….at least for the time being.

Fast forward to three days before my 15th birthday. My fear had subsided helped along with movies about ninjas, David Carradine and re-runs of Kung Fu. I was ready to try again.

I returned to the same studio and fortunately, the big scary instructor had opened up satellite studios and was running one about 40 miles away. He would come to our studio about once or twice a month to fight, as our focus was still full contact fighting.

Not long after beginning I realized a really cool thing…I loved Karate. My passions forms and self defense moves but I was pretty good with fighting as well. After all, at 15 years old the word sore and bruised is not in your vocabulary.

Over time I began to improve, the insulation that had accumulated around my waist when I hit my teen years melted away, and I had fun.

Fighting was not my passion but I found out that long legs and quickness went a long way, even when fighting adults that didn’t hold back. As the years passed I improved. Although I never found a true love of fighting, I got pretty good at it. I was only knocked out once, one broken foot and a nose bleed that didn’t stop for three hours, but I still gave more than I received.

I kept my eye on the prize… a black belt.  Unfortunately, I learned that only 4 had been given in 17 years and I could expect 5 to 6 years for my chance, but that was OK with me…I was having fun.

Years passed, I was now 19 years old and a 3rd degree Brown belt, only a year and a half to go for black belt. Then things changed…I moved. The style of Karate I was taking was unique, and I couldn’t find any studios that taught my style.

I tried different martial arts but I only knew one way to practice, the exact way I had been practicing.

Most of the studios I went to were so different from my old school. I had been practicing longer than a lot of the black belts, was better at fighting than most and this was the stick that I had been taught to measure with. So I stopped looking.

Time passed…more time passed,  Oh My Gosh…is that a grey hair??? Fast forward a couple of decades and now I am a dad. Pretty cool. Martial Arts was the best thing I ever did as a kid and I wanted my children to have the same experience but without my mistakes.

So, I went to google to find a place that met my demanding list. As my wife says “I’m not picky, I just know what I want”.

I wanted a style of martial arts that my kids and I could practice anywhere in the US if we ever moved, a lot of classes so I could go as much as I wanted. Also, a place where my kids and I could take the same classes, and a studio that was very organized.

After searching, I took the advice of one of my patients, I’m a chiropractor, and I checked out Sun Soo.

My first introduction was great, Mr Dickinson was very cool and I found that I remembered a lot from years past.

So, I started. I’ll let you in on a little known secret… muscles really tighten over time. And what’s with this back soreness and popping in my hip…. I’ve never had hip popping????? Nevertheless, I was very pleased, I still had speed and my technique wasn’t too bad. Slowly, my flexibility improved, soreness went away and no more hip popping….cool.

One of the first things I noticed about Sun Soo, was that the sparring was more relaxed, which was great, but it took a little time to acclimate. My only reference was to be aggressive. But being in my 40’s I found that aggression on my part resulted in increased bruising, swelling and overall soreness.

The next thing I noticed was the diversity of students, young, old, excuse me, that’s me so lets say medium. Men, women, children. Wow!! Everyone was having a great time. And the workouts were awesome.

Then, I made yellow belt and was invited to the black belt club. I tend to be a little cynical and my past experiences had been with schools that were more interested in the bottom line…money. So I immediately thought that this invitation must be the financial hook. I actually read the invitation letter three times because I was so convinced that things here were too good to be true…but there was no catch. I couldn’t believe that Sun Soo was doing so much…organized, tons of classes, tournaments, guest instructors, Black Belt club classes and no catches. I was committed.

As time passed I met more people, made friends and began learning about people and how they had grown through Tae Kwon Do. I took time to compare Sun Soo with my prior Karate experiences.  I saw merits in both, but the biggest thing I learned is that when you practice the way I did as a kid is you are eliminating about 90% of the population as potential students.

A few years ago when my oldest son was 18, he told me that he had been thinking about the purpose of life. He said he had narrowed it down to three things;

  1. To have fun
  2. To experience things
  3. To help other people

Martial Arts accomplishes all three. Sun Soo is a place where everyone can find a home. Kids, teenagers, male, female, old, young. Someone that is looking to get into shape, lose weight, meet friends, gain confidence or become a great fighter and compete at whatever level you want. If you want no contact sparring, lite contact or full contact it is up to you. Just this past weekend we had a two hour sparring (tournament fighting) class hosted by a US Olympic Tae Kwon Do Coach and former US heavyweight champion. What an experience and a privilege. Ultimately, Sun Soo provides choices so you can find the fit that is right for you, and I certainly have done that for myself. I have referred many patients from my practice here because the road to health is not found on the couch at home.

My view of martial arts has evolved, now I try to improve myself not only physically, but as a person.  I am working on the tenets of Sun Soo Tae Kwon Do: Courtesy, Integrity, perseverance, indomitable spirit and self control as well as personal goals of humility and patience.

I think we all fall short in some of these areas. So this gives me a goal for the present and the future.

I want to thank Master Morris, all of the instructors and students at Sun Soo Tae Kwon Do for making this wonderful place a reality and I look forward to the future.

First Degree, 15 Years Old

I was told when I did my intro with Master Morris that obtaining a black belt takes three years. I thought ‘I doubt I’ll make it that long’, and pushed the idea of black belt away. When I did my first class the following day, my opinion changed. When I saw the speed and agility of the black belts on the first row I was blown away. That was the October of 6th grade, about a week after the testing here at Sun Soo. In the fast-paced three years that have followed I haven’t really thought back to that first day until now.

I had come out here before, because when my cousin Drew started in 4th grade I had considered starting also. I had watched probably 4 or 5 classes before deciding to stick with soccer. So when I came to the October testing of 2011, I had the same mind set. Or, I did beforehand. As soon as I got home I told my parents that I wanted to start. My intro was Friday of that week.

I remember the challenge of core work of my first class. I also remember the challenge of core work from the class I did on Thursday. Some things never change. But some things do. I didn’t really like forms when I first started, yet I love them now. I liked one-steps, and still do. I’ve always like how fluid sparring is when it’s done at a fast pace. I admire the speed and power it takes to break a board. Like I said something’s never change, but something’s do. I’m glad that my confidence changed, because when I first started I wouldn’t have been able to do this, and I would’ve avoided talking in front of all you at all costs. I’m also really happy that my coordination changed, because I haven’t fallen today, which is a good sign.

A year into my practice, about November of 2012, Mrs. Dexter was looking for teen helpers for the Mighty Tigers. Before I volunteered, I didn’t know what the Mighty Tigers were. I learned that day that the Mighty Tigers are 3-5 year olds that want to do Tae Kwon Do. I was a little apprehensive at first, because most 3-5 year olds don’t have the best attention spans, but once I started helping I haven’t looked back. I’ve been helping with the tigers for 2 years (wow. I hadn’t realized it’s been that long), and I’ve continued help with the Mighty Tiger class on Fridays at 4:00.

Around blue belt another thing started; middle school. Now I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of middle school, but I can say that it was an experience. I think Tae Kwon Do helped me with my perseverance and my confidence and my drive to work hard at school. I tried my hardest in several things such beta club, art, student council, the geography bee, track and Tae Kwon Do of course. I had a really hard year at school this past year, but Tae Kwon Do’ s tenants (perseverance, integrity, indomitable spirit, courage and self-control) helped me get through it. With the help of Tae Kwon Do’s tenants I was able to an end hard year with many positive achievements.

While working towards my red-black belt, I developed a hip issue. It seems I was growing faster than my hip flexor tendon wanted me to, and it caused and still causes some pain when I kick, specifically. I haven’t let this injury stop me in my goal of obtaining black belt, but just the opposite. This injury pushed me to try my hardest even when I felt like I couldn’t give any more. Because I persevered, my goal of black-belt is in sight.

This past June, I decided it was time for me to pursue the next belt. I began to review with Master Morris, and around August I was given some feedback I didn’t understand. He told me to be big, something which I had no idea how to do. Although it seems like this wouldn’t be a problem for my 6 foot 1 self, but up until that point I was trying to act small emotionally, and physically. I was really confused for about a week, but eventually overcame this hurdle. I’ve been trying my hardest, and have felt my life change.

So that brings me to today, October of 2014, almost to my goal of obtaining black belt. I did the tournament about 2 weeks ago, and that was very reassuring. Although I didn’t do as well as I wanted to in some things, it was a good vote of confidence that I was improving. I strongly believe that the practice and the people who practice here have changed my life.

It’s very hard for a high schooler to look into the future, but I’m going to try to. Following this testing I’m going join my school’s swim team. Because of swim practices and class are at the same time, I’m not going to be able to come to class as often as I’d like, but I promise that I am not quitting. I’m going to continue to practice through the season, Saturdays mostly, and hope to begin to come to classes more often at the end of the season. I look forward to helping people with their testing’s, because I know how hard it can be (especially in my preparation for this one) to prepare for them. I look forward to helping people with their board breaks, as many people have helped me with mine. I know that in my practice I’ve gotten more confident, and more coordinated. When I started practicing I fumbled around, unsure of what I was doing. I have felt myself gotten more coordinated, and I’ve been getting more and more confident in myself and my abilities.

I have many people I’d like to thank for all their help. I’d like to thank my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles for bringing to class. I’d like to thank my friends for understanding why I don’t respond to their texts during class. I’d like to thank the Weaverville car-pool, Donna, Drew and Chris, for being great friends. I’d like to thank Drew Katsigianis for getting me to start practicing here. I’d like to thank Donna and Chris Hollinshead for being great friends and for giving me great advice that comes from our Tuesday night journeys to West Asheville and back. I’d like to thank the instructional staff here at Asheville Sun Soo, for pushing me to do my best. I’d like to thank Cara and Joann for being great friends. I’d like to thank the Mighty Tigers because y’all are awesome. I’d like to thank the community here at Sun Soo, for being so inviting and friendly.

First Degree, 16 Years Old

I want to begin by stating that I hate writing essays and I especially do not want to read this one. Advancing in my TKD practice is a process of growth. Growth means doing things we don’t want to do sometimes. That being said, here is my black belt essay.

I have associated “pain” with writing this essay and “pain” with the thought of having to read this essay out loud. I don’t want to think about “pain” and certainly do not want to share it out loud. I see myself as a shy person. I was even more shy when I started TKD. Part of being shy means keeping things to myself. Feelings and emotions are things that I learned to put walls around. They are protected by a fortress which is like the Great Wall of China with all draw bridges up. Nobody in and nothing out – nobody gets into my emotional protected area and nothing gets let out. Maybe my parents were the only exception, but even then I may have hidden some things.

I joined Sun Soo when I was in 7th grade which was in February of 2011. My mother died shortly before this. I was enrolled by my grandmother. She thought it would be a good idea to have something to focus during this depressive time. When my mother died, I expressed my sorrow in different ways. I played songs for her, I would think about it quietly to myself – but I didn’t cry much. Nobody in and nothing out. At the time, I wasn’t involved in any clubs or sports, so I thought I would give TKD a try.

I felt pretty powerless when I started my TKD practice. I didn’t have the power to change my mother’s circumstance. I also had issues with middle school that I had no power to change. I spent most of middle school feeling intimidated. Middle school was not a fun time for me. I can’t say I was picked on too much, but I can say I didn’t feel entirely safe there either. I avoided people and situations that did not make me feel safe. I would end up going out of my way and not walk or act as I normally would have. My TKD practice was the beginning of me gaining power in my life during a time in my life when I felt I had little to none.

I began TKD in the kid’s classes. It was a good start for me. They were fun and not too overwhelming. I was shorter than my dad at the time. Then I started adult mixed classes. These classes were a little different. We had to meet strangers and tell them a little bit about ourselves. Having to do this was a little uncomfortable for me. My family joined TKD soon after I started doing adult mixed class and this helped a little with the anxiety I felt doing adult mixed classes.

Whenever I had to meet new people in the adult mixed classes, I struggled with telling strangers a little about myself. Remember the fortress? Nobody in and nothing out. I prepared a “S.N.A.C.(K)” to help me get over the “tell me something about yourself?” aspect of mixed adult class. My S.N.A.C. was: (s)chool, (n)ame. (a)ge, favorite (c)o!or. I have been pretty good at serving snacks up to this point. In order for me to progress in rank and in life, I need to learn how to prepare meals.

I have grown a lot since the beginning of my TKD practice. I am much taller than my dad now. I walk through high school hallways as I please. I do not have to avoid people or situations because I realize the degree of control I have when I engage my environment.

I reflect on this idea of having control over my environment. I realize there are two kinds of environments: the internal and the external. It’s great that I have been successful in managing my external environment. Managing my internal environment is something I’m still working on. The internal environment deals with thoughts and emotions. “Nobody in and nothing out” is how I’ve managed my internal environment to this point. My dad tells me in order to have meaningful relationships in life, it will be necessary to let people in and maybe let some of my emotions out. I don’t like letting my emotions out. I don’t want to let people in to see my emotions and I don’t want to let my emotions out to be seen. Standing right here, right now, is a personal test. I’m going to talk about some personal things. I hope to learn not to fear my emotions as much as I do. After I let you, the audience, in for a peek into my emotions, I hope to realize the world will not end because I let some of my emotions out. So here goes.

I wish my mom hadn’t given up. The choice to end her life was hers. If she were still here, I would have wanted her to see my testing. It’s a strange mix of emotions though. Because if she were alive today, I probably would not be here reading this essay. My feelings about the whole thing is summarized in the belief that everything has reasons for why they happen – I may not understand the reason, but there is a purpose behind them. I feel sad that my mother could not be here today. Not only for not being here today, but for all the things she missed out on. She missed out on all the growth I made over the past four years and she will miss out on the growth I will make in the years to come. I’m lucky to be surrounded by family and friends that think I’m awesome. I’m thankful for this. I’m glad I can call Sun Soo my family. I feel thankful for my dad. Even though through this process, he was a complete pain in my butt. I’m still glad that he helped me through. I could not have done it without him. I have fears. I fear losing my dad because he is the closest person to me. I don’t know what would happen next without him. I also want to tell you about my sister Sofia. She is an even bigger pain in my butt. Looking after her is difficult when my dad is not home. Sometimes I think life without Sofia would give me some peace at mind. But it would be sad and quiet without her. Sofia is my sister and I love her.

Like I said before, I hated writing this essay. It was very difficult. What made it difficult was the worry I had over sharing it and being treated differently because of reading it. Don’t treat me different because of this because I am still the same person.

Ok, so now I can say I am proud of myself because I let you, the audience, in to see my emotions and I was able to let some of my stronger emotions out. The world didn’t end and unfortunately I’m still reading this essay. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The TKD journey is a test of practice – both in the art and in life. I have grown in both.

Some student’s journey to black belt are accomplished weeks before the student’s testing. A big piece of my journey became accomplished right here, right now on this mat. Thank you for being here to support others and myself during this testing. And thank you to everyone who walked with me along the way to get me here right now. It’s been a great journey and I’m glad I have people I can share it with and I am excited for what happens next.

Third Degree, 72 Years Old

A bit of history:

Two at the judging table, Master Tony Morris, and my older daughter Master Juli Bowman were instrumental in my decision to begin my Tae Kwon Do practice. I vividly remember seeing the two of them spar when Juli visited here in the spring of 2007 I thought to myself…I could give this a try!

Now after seven years as of this month, I am at a point in my practice that was not on my radar screen in 2007 when I began. In fact, I had doubts about ever becoming a Black Belt, not to mention a 3rd degree.

Now to the present:

Master Morris requested that I relate to how this black belt journey has positively influenced my life. This has been a bit awkward for me, as in spite of being of a talkative and social nature, I remain a rather private person.

Frankly, the journey has been a continuum, beginning at that first class as a white belt in August:

  • I had always felt the need to improve physically, through strength training, running and cycling, but never was what most would term an accomplished athlete.

What changed when starting this practice was instead doing it alone:

  • I have had a team working with me the entire journey, class by class, month by month, and belt by belt to insure my success.
  • I began to welcome criticism, well most of the time, as a means of improvement.
  • I see the importance of the guidance and help rather than the merely to say I did it.

My attitude is not perfect, but what I have learned is:

  • It’s not how many years have passed, but how many remain.
  • It’s not the mistakes and failures I’ve had (I have missed breaking two boards via a side kick in five of five belt levels), it’s the mental toughness and improvement opportunity I gain.
  • It’s not how much physical strength and agility has been lost, but how much remains, and the degree to which I can actually improve.
  • It’s not so much what or how long the journey had been, but how it has equipped me for the trip in the future.
  • Finally, it’s not what abilities I have compared to far more talented peers, but how I explore the limits to the abilities I have.

Finally, I want to say a few words in appreciation of those who have helped me get to today:

First my family

My partner in marriage for nearly 51 years, Sandra, you have endured my passion for Tae Kwon Do, encouraged me when I’m unsure, and sacrificed a traditional (if there is such a state) retirement. You are my best friend, my joy, and my favorite athlete.

It’s a joy having our two grown daughters and four grandchildren here and marvel at how wonderful and successful they are. As an aside, Juli, I assume you have awarded me no less than 80 in my testing thus far today.

To my Tae Kwon Do family, I truly appreciate all of you, but I much mention a few by name.

  • My sidekick, Amy Dexter, my practice partner. Your persistence, unselfish nature, and amazing skill are an inspiration.
  • Elizabeth Goyer, I want to thank you for your continued focus and attention to the details of my performance, particularly in forms practice.
  • My friend, gifted athlete and scholar, 3rd degree Taylor Davis, you have helped me make this practice such fun, and I wish you well in your academic and professional journey.
  • Ethan Morris, you a junior black belt at I recall 10 years old when I started, you inspire everyone with your precision and teaching skills in practice. Plus, your accomplishments outside of Tae Kwon Do are equally inspiring.
  • A renaissance man of skills in many areas in life including TKD, Michael Dickinson, you have been such help to my progress by both instruction and example.
  • Master Morris, you have always believed in me, challenged me to explore the limits of my ability, and insisted I can be the best I can be. You have established a legacy of success which each of us can inherit.
  • Finally, Karen, Marilyn & Dina, you, “The Iron Ladies”, like me started your practice here at later in your life journey and are models of persistence.

In closing:

There once was a man named Randy,
Who considered himself as dandy,
At age 65, he started Tae Kwon Do,
Just to see how far he could go,
And today his 3rd degree is now handy!

Second Degree, 15 Years Old

I’ve never been the best at ending things. I’ve never been the best wordsmith, I’ve never been the fastest runner, or the smartest scholar. But all of this melts away when I walk into the dojang. In here, everything that I am not fades away, and all that matters are the people that I am practicing with. I feel like the person I am in here is someone who I really want to be. When I tested in June last year, I had no idea what becoming a Black Belt would entail. Sure, I knew that I would learn my new forms, and I really viewed it it as just another belt. Having kept up my practice after receiving my first degree has shown me that it is so much more. This is about how I have changed from that testing. I have become a better martial artist, I have given more to the community and I have made so many new goals in all areas of my life. This belt is a passport to change and it has helped me increase my personal standards in all walks of life. It has started to show what I can accomplish.

When I tested for my first degree black belt, I had no idea what kind of martial artist I could be. At that last testing, I talked about how the testing I felt the proudest after was my first testing, white belt to white-yellow belt. I now think that this is because it showed me that this practice I had been thrown into could really lead somewhere for me, and now, I think I have reached that first somewhere. Working to be the best that I could be is a concept I only internalized recently. Sure, I had worked towards it for my entire career as a martial artist, but until recently, it as been something that is just out of reach. Discovering what I am truly capable of has been a ground-breaking discovery for me. It has helped decide what my standards are and what I need to live up to. My first degree Black Belt to me has been a gateway to goal setting. It has let me know what I need to work on and how I need to work on it. It has helped me realize goals I didn’t know I had even set for myself, such as excellence in all areas in my life. Becoming a Black Belt has shown me that I can achieve excellence.

Throughout my school education, I have always had a goal of being “good” in the back of my head, but I hadn’t really defined what that meant for me. I always assumed being “good” meant getting straight A’s and paying attention in class. But now, I have surpassed that idea and my previous “good” has grown in excellence. Over the past year, my standards have changed in some way that I never thought about. I start feeling nervous about tests I think I didn’t do well on and I’ve found myself freaking out over simple homework assignments. I feel like school has come to mean more to me than just something to waste my time. I’ve started seeing it as something that can make or break my entire career. I have resolved to try and satisfy myself and get to where I want to go. In the past, I have aligned my standards within the standards of the school system, but I feel like this year, I have really defined what I want out of school. Through setting these goals, I have found that, even if I haven’t realized it, this rank has really changed me.

Music has been a large part of my life since I was born, so it’s natural that I include some goals relating to music in my second degree essay. I feel like music and Taekwondo take place in the same part of my life. When I’m playing music, or practicing at the dojang, I really feel like I take the opportunity to let myself go from everything that happened outside of whatever I’m doing, just like Master Morris tells us to do at the beginning of every class. Because of this, I am committed to keeping these parts of my life. In the future, I want to work on simple things such as sight reading and music theory, but also more complex things, such as increasing my practice time every week and making sure I practice the pieces I’ve previously done, much like the review I went through for my first degree testing.

So at the end of the day I’ve set some goals, I’ve tested once again and when I was writing this essay, I really had to think about what it means. Like I said before, when I tested to first degree, I didn’t really recognize it as something more than another belt. I don’t plan on making that same mistake with this belt. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find what this belt means to me, and with this essay, I think I’ve found that definition. To me, the second degree black belt is telling me that I can actually reach the goals I set. It is confirmation that I can set my own standards and make them higher and higher every day. It tells me that I can be strong, intense, powerful, embody all the Taekwondo tenants, and be an inelegant and articulate person, all at the same time. This belt means that I have started my own path in the world, and I think this is the best first step I could have taken. As I bow out of a wonderful experience as a first degree and into a new one as a second degree, I would like to thank everyone who made this possible for me. I would like to thank my dad, Allan Wolf, for countless hours of review and break away practice. I’d like to thank David Kareken for giving us little tweaks in our throws and breakaways. I’d like to thank Tony and Ethan Morris for motivating me to bring myself to practice and raise the bar every time. I’d like to thank my mother, my sister and my brother for providing endless support at home and the dojang alike. I’d like to thank Master John Meanie for coming down and being part of this momentous occasion. And last of all, I’d like to thank every single one of the student here at Asheville Sun Soo. Thank you for your support, your feedback, your extra work after class. Thank you for creating such a wonderful, loving environment here where I can walk in and let go of everything I am not. Moving on in my practice will be a big step for me, but I’m glad I’ll have all of you to help me along.

Second Degree, 52 Years Old

So why did I go to 200 extra classes? Well, I’m lucky, for one. I’ve stayed healthy, my work, such as it is, doesn’t get in the way, and my family, whether because they’re really generous or because they know how sulky I’ll get if I don’t go, are always very accommodating. Even if I wasn’t doing tae kwon do I’d be doing some exercise, if only so I can fall asleep at night, but there’s no question that I enjoy classes here more than I ever enjoyed the repetition of biking or the elliptical trainer. I know that pretty much every time I go to class I’ll leave feeling better than I did when I got there, whether because of the exercise or the challenge or just because I had a chance to hang out for an hour with some pretty cool people before heading back to my desk.

But still, why 200 extra classes, many of them when my legs were screaming for a break and I thought that if I stepped out into a horse stance and punched one more time I might scream, and I don’t mean kiyop? During almost every one of those classes there came a point when I wondered why I was there. I mean, I was never going to be Bruce Lee, or Ethan Morris or Dawson Jones for that matter. The best I can hope for is to make grandmaster by 2063, and that’s if I don’t miss any testing cycles when I’m in my eighties and nineties. There has to be something else making me stay all those times when my legs are stiff and my back aches, and I vastly prefer to just lie on the floor rather than do yet another variation on the sit-up.

One answer has something to do with what happened in a class a couple of months ago. Actually, I could use an example from pretty much any class but this one was particularly vivid. To describe it, I need to go back to when I was a kid — this won’t take long, I promise — when I used to sleepwalk pretty much every night. I would get out of bed, walk past the bathroom I shared with my sister, cruise past the top of the stairs and into my parents’ room, where they were probably still up watching Carson, and then make a right into their bathroom. There I’d proceed to use the, er, facilities, before heading straight to bed. When my parents would tell me in the morning I was at it again, I only partly believed them. I never remembered any of it, even after I’d been taking the same nighttime walk for years.

And then one night, I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, I awoke in the hall. I knew instantly where I was and what I was doing, what I’d been doing all along. I knew the whole routine, exactly the way it had been happening for all those years. When I was done I got back into bed, and unless there’s something Julia isn’t telling me, I’ve never sleepwalked again.

So back to that class a couple of months ago. We were doing our forms and another black belt pointed out that I wasn’t extending my arms in one of the black belt forms, po eun. You’re supposed to go like this…but I was doing this instead. I only half believed her, or if I did believe her thought it was a one time thing, that maybe I’d been concentrating on my stances and hadn’t been paying attention to my arms. A little later in class though we did our form again, and this time I just happened to look back when I got to that move. It was exactly like waking up in that hall all those years earlier, because even though I knew, or thought I knew, that my arms were fully extended, when I looked back I could see I’d been fooling myself, that it only felt as if my arms were extended.

Now I don’t know if, as when I stopped sleepwalking, I’ve never crooked my arms when performing that move since then, though I suppose Master Morris would be more than happy to let me know if I haven’t. But the force of that awareness is, I think, why I keep coming back. Somewhere in pretty much every class I get a mini-version of this. I’m not even sure if I can articulate why that feeling should be so compelling, or why it makes me keep showing up. Sometimes it can be pretty discouraging — “You mean after five years I’m not still raising my arms all the way?” And in some ways it doesn’t even matter, since it’s not like even if I ever did get into a fight I’d ever use that move. But still, just that little bit more awareness does seep into the rest of my life in ways that I can’t always fully articulate. There’s something about figuring out what you’re supposed to do, and figuring out what you’re doing instead, and trying to fix it, that keeps me going to class even on days when I don’t really feel like it. What’s that old phrase, “Wake up just as much as you can?” Those 200 extra classes woke me up just a little bit more than I would have woken up without them. And so, with continued good health and luck, maybe I can do an extra 400 or so before I test for third degree somewhere down the road.

I’d be remiss in not thanking everyone here for helping me from white belt up, but I’d especially like to thank Mr. Langley for patiently trying to fix my jump spin side, with what success we’ll all know in a few minutes. I’d two other lower belt martial artists, Rosie and Mia, for making sure I don’t take all this awareness stuff seriously. Sometimes tae kwon do is just fun, too. And of course I have to thank Julia, the most beautiful red belt ever, and a dream from which I’d prefer not to be woken, thank you.

And lastly, I’d like to thank the Sun Soo staff, Ms. Goyer, Ms. Dexter, Mr. Dickinson, and Master Morris. There’s lots of stuff I’m thankful for from each of you, but in keeping with the theme here, I just want to say how good all of you guys are at waking us up as much as we’re ready for, and then maybe a little bit more. We’re all a little better for it. Once again, sugahashi samnita.

Third Degree, 45 Years Old

Someone recently asked me, “What does it mean to be a Black Belt? What do you have to do?” I found myself searching for words and wondering how to describe it. What I realized was that there isn’t a perfect definition. For me it is not a journey but a destination. The journey is a personal one and sometimes a private one as well. Becoming a black belt is an ongoing process of personal growth and striving for personal maximum potential in all aspects of life. Finding balance, breaking through obstacles without giving up, all the while staying true to who I am, is what I have been striving for since I started my practice here seven years ago.

Soon after I started my practice, I was given the nickname Amish. I am from the Amish country of Western New York; I had very long hair, wore very long earth tone skirts with big earth tone shirts and was very timid on the mat. I held myself small and put everybody’s opinions before my own. I believe I was a bit of a challenge for Master Morris and the other students here. At the time I really did not know what the upper belts were talking about when they would say “Wow Amy, you really have potential, you are going to be amazed with your own progress.” Believe in yourself, give yourself permission to be big, even if it seems hard to keep trying.” Well, that is exactly what I do. I keep trying. Many obstacles have popped up for me. The first obstacle happened on the very first day. I could not kihap for literally TWO WEEKS! Once I felt somewhat ok with that, I was introduced to one-steps. Now they are telling me I had to look someone in they eye and yell at them???? Oh I thought, you have got to be kidding me. And to make it even harder my partner was a man. I was so scared of men! The poor guy stepped back to down block, he kihaped and huge tears began to roll down my face. I was uncomfortable but I did not quit. I was determined to get past that obstacle. With practice and patience I did.

Another obstacle was when I learned what the word grapple meant. Master Morris had a seminar about this topic which he said it would be great for my practice if I would attend. Little did I know that meant it required allowing people to get into your personal space. Well that did not go well for me. I cried during that too. The next day in class, Mr. Dickinson (a blue belt at the time) offered to help me. While we had a water break he sat next to me on the mat and I just trembled. He said, “Well, this is a pretty good start. Next time maybe I can sit a little closer.” I was uncomfortable, but I did not quit. I was determined to get past this obstacle. With practice I did.

The most current obstacle I am working on and has been an obstacle of mine for a very long time is happening at this moment. Right now. Being public and sharing myself with others. I really struggle with this. I have never invited anyone to my testing before I just didn’t want to draw attention to myself, but I finally did this time. I prefer to work behind the scene, help others, remain humble in all that I do and not draw attention to myself. I am comfortable there. Master Morris says when you are slightly uncomfortable progress is about to be made. He made sure to give me plenty of opportunities  to work in this area. One time I knew he was going to ask me to demonstrate a form in class, so I hid in the bathroom. Guess what? He notices everything! He did not say anything at the time but he upped the ante. Later, I found myself doing a self-defense demonstration in the middle of a basketball court in front of thousands for the SEC college Basketball tournament held at UNC Asheville.

I now understand that the obstacle represents the terrain of my path of becoming the black belt I was meant to be. Since I have been a black belt I have noticed a significant difference in my ability to handle life’s obstacles. Just this past January my beautiful mother (who is here with me today) had a stroke. The old Amy pre-martial artist would have totally freaked! I would have simply frozen. My brothers would not have given me details because emotionally I would not have been able to handle it. The black belt Amy, remained calm, and took action which doing so abled me to serve my mother and care for her in a much stronger manor.

A few months later, my dear friend Tiffany (who is also here with me today) was diagnosed with cancer. The old Amy would have just fallen apart. The black belt in me remained calm, and supported my dear friend so she knows she is not alone. I will always be with her. I will be her rock.

Just a few nights ago I was teaching the night class with Mr. Dickinson. The students had just left, and I was in the bathroom. Mr. Dickinson thought it would be a grand idea to hide behind the door and jump out at me like a horrible monster. The old Amy would have been covering my face in horror, my body would have been frozen and I would probably have been so scared that not a sound would have come out. Scared stiff, one might say. The black belt Amy was not visibly fazed at all. I did, however, step off the line, breathed out and was calm, but ready. It was pretty funny.

This journey is amazing!! I can’t believe the personal growth I have made. I am absolutely thrilled to be an instructor here at Asheville Sun Soo. I get to be helpful and supportive to all my fellow practitioners and their families. When I think about what is to come…I beam with excitement because the possibilities are endless. We have such great things happening here. Thank you all for your contribution to the community here at Sun Soo. Thank you all for being a part of my personal journey as a Black Belt. I feel deeply loved and feel very blessed to be given this opportunity to share a little bit of myself with you all today,

Thank you and God bless.