I recently had the good fortune to complete my 2nd Dan promotion in Taekwondo, Hapkido and Kumdo – Our curriculum includes all three Arts, though we focus primarily on the Taekwondo, and Hapkido (both of which I adore!) I hadn’t actually stepped foot in a dojang until my early 30’s – but despite zero background in Martial Arts as a whole, I maintained the belief that anything was achievable.
My personal athletic history includes classical training in ballet for a decade, competitive figure skating for about sixteen years, and competitive ballroom dancing for about seven. I supplemented my training with weightlifting and some cardio from the age of 13 on, and certainly gave other sports a try over the years (many of which, I confess, were under duress. Still, it was to my benefit, as I learned what did…and didn’t...work for me!)
The school I attend is run by the phenomenally accomplished Grandmaster Ik Jo Kang of Korea – not only an 8th Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo, but also a 9th Degree in Hapkido, as well as highly skilled in knife throwing, short stick, long stick, and nunchucks (among other things.) He’s most definitely a force to be reckoned with, and someone I looked up to from day 1.
Kwan Jang Nim (the appropriate term for Grandmaster) welcomed me warmly, encouraging me in spite of my very dancelike habits and lack of experience. He generously took me under his wing, and I spent countless private lessons trying to learn as much as I possibly could retain. Most Grandmasters at his level are no longer teaching, not to mention teaching lower belts – we, his students, are very blessed.
During one of my more intense lessons, in which we practiced nearly and hour of jump kicks and combinations (yung seuk chagi), my foot rolled into a divot in the mat, changing my athletic career in less than a second. As I took off for a spinning, jumping back kick, my knee jolted left to right, severing my ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament), tearing the meniscus, tearing the hamstring (at the gastrocnemius tie-in), and severely contusing the bones.
I literally saw stars (I describe it as the Cinderella, Fairy-Godmother-effect from my skating days – spin super fast, and that is precisely what when down!)
Kwan Jang Nim, seeing that I couldn’t move, helped me put pressure to assist with the pain (the hamstring tear was likely the most intense part – popped ACLs cause swelling, but not the dramatic wave of pain I was experiencing. In a fit of cold sweats I tried not to be sick, and to get myself to my feet. I was able to do so within a minute or two but there was something clearly amiss – athletes (of whatever kind!) get used to the bumps, bruises, and muscular pain – this was something different.
Sad to say…I was diagnosed with a torn hamstring only. The trauma within the patellar region was severe enough that the swelling prevented the Lachman’s test from divulging what was really going on (typically, it’s a failsafe – the knee pops forward and it’s pretty darn clear that the ACL is damaged, or no longer intact!) We didn’t think the MRI was required – though it was painful, stiff, and swollen, I could still bear my weight. I could still LIFT weights at the gym. I could do everything pretty much as normal except that I “felt” like something wasn’t right. There was a hair of instability that I didn’t believe I’d had prior and, four months later, without signs of abating, an MRI confirmed I wasn’t crazy. (Bottom line: YOU KNOW YOUR BODY! If it doesn’t feel right, check it out immediately!)
I read the MRI report and burst into tears… Two months prior I had won two titles at the World Championships in ballroom – I was right at a peak age, and ready to revamp my routines and push myself as far as I could go… But in the fell swoop of one, poorly-supported moment…my competitive dreams were taken away.
I was in surgery days after receiving the news. The recovery itself was the most painful physical situation I’ve been in, not to mention one of the more trying (though not the worst) on an emotional level as well. My parents are saints for having put up with me – the prospect of not dancing was already devastating, and to know that physical activity was off limits for months did NOT sit well. I lost three inches around my thigh – my quad was actually concave when the swelling subsided – and about eight pounds on that side. Let’s just say it was eye-opening.
I remember meeting my friend Roger for the first time. Roger was a Sergeant, SWAT Team member, pilot and badass Harley-rider who had been diagnosed with ALS some years earlier – he has since passed, but will ever be remembered as a hero…and an inspiration. When we were introduced, my best friend mentioned that I was a dancer. Roger’s face lit up like a sun and he smiled larger than the room (I have goosebumps recalling it.) He typed (with his eyes) into his computer, “do you watch Dancing With the Stars?” “My old teacher is on the show!” I replied. The warmth, excitement, and genuine care Roger’s face expressed nearly moved me to tears – in that moment I remembered my first day at physical therapy after my knee reconstruction…
I remember that I was asked to “fire my quad” and I couldn’t do it. Confused, I looked at my thigh, sending the message to it to contract. Nothing. It was like a dead limb…and it was terrifying. When I spoke to Roger I thought “my God…he wakes up every day knowing it won’t get better… He wakes up and something else doesn’t work, and it won’t come back.” There I was acting like a big baby…and my leg WAS going to heal.
That moment stayed with me, and it’s something I think about when I’m feeling down – I am SO blessed. He would smile and tell me to be careful, despite his own circumstance – I will never forget the bravery, nor his ever-present selflessness. He affected me so much that I agreed to do the Tri-State Trek in his honor – we knew his time was limited and I wanted to repay him for the gift of sight and perspective he gave me while he was still with us.
I didn’t have my first Black Belt at the time, but Roger and I, and one of my best friends Rick, would always share smiles and laughs about my Martial Arts training – I was determined to become a badass one day! I would say the training (road bike) ride was exhausting and I was going to kick Rick’s butt for it…adding a “KIYAH!” along with my kicking motions. Roger would always giggle and say that Rick would have to “watch out! She’s dangerous.”
The knee recovery derailed my competitive ballroom dancing…but I was as set on getting my black belt no matter how hard it would be, or how long it took to get there. When I was able to finally get up one stair – ten months after surgery – my Grandmaster allowed me to come back to the school to start training again. He was incredibly patient, and always mindful of my injury. I took baby steps and modified where necessary – while I couldn’t do everything, I still could do SOMEthing. I wasn’t giving up…
The only aspect of the Black Belt promotion I had some trouble with was snapping a side kick and breaking boards – the emotional paralysis you can sustain from traumatic injury can really stick with you, and it was quite prevalent at that moment! Fortunately, I was permitted to do breaks with my hands. PHEW! The new rank meant the WORLD to me…because it represented my persistence, my perseverance, my dedication… It represented that I could achieve anything I set my heart to – just like the 300 mile bike ride for Roger.
I continued my training with Kwan Jang Nim, eager to perfect what I knew…and to learn even more – in Martial Arts, the learning NEVER stops! I managed to tear my right knee along the way – again with a kick – but I refused to reconstruct it and kept forging ahead (despite the chagrin of my orthopedic surgeon!)
After maintaining the rank a while, students were getting excited for the next big promotion. But, while they usually occur at quarterly intervals (maybe more), the schedule shifted dramatically. Kwan Jang Nim was given an opportunity to finally shoot his Screenplay– a long-time dream of his. While we were sad we couldn’t do our promotion, we were incredibly excited for him that his dream was coming to fruition.
Within that time, though, I met the Love of my Life…who had apparently lived just yards away from my Dojang all that time… He was moving away from our town two weeks after we met and…fast forward six months, I was following him out of state too. The promotion loomed over me – I was ready to test, but I was no longer at the school to participate in classes, to practice, to learn, to perfect…
I stayed in touch with Kwan Jang Nim, eager to hear about any set dates for the testing. I practiced on my own, as I always did back home…but it was so much more important without others to work with me. My hunnie kindly “stole my wallet” many nights as he grilled dinner so I could practice my Hapkido defenses. And I never gave up the hope of getting back home to take my 2nd Degree test.
In January I got a call that the promotion was set for early February – I wasn’t sure I could get back for the actual date, so Kwan Jang Nim…very generously…agreed to meet me privately and do my test earlier. FINALLY, the day came, and I was overjoyed.
Seeing Kwan Jang Nim again was amazing – I realized how much I missed my classes, and the Dojang, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to “do my thing.” The test went amazingly – I feel like I’m still glowing from the experience. I feel so blessed, and so thankful to officially be a Kyo Sa Nim. ❤
It’s funny because sometimes people assume that getting a belt is something that you just “pay for.” There is a business aspect to many schools that allows for that to occur…but there are a lot of us who work HARD to get where we are. We get their early, do chores we aren’t asked to do, practice on our own. We go to class, ask for feedback, and repeat until we can’t move.
Some of us – MOST of us – have had debilitating injuries over the years, and we push through them with determination to reach our goals. It is EARNED, NOT GIVEN for many of us, and there is a lot of sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears along the way.
My friends have achieved incredible things – feats I look up to with deep reverence. Overcoming personal setbacks, in particular, is something I have profound respect for – whether emotional, physical or spiritual. For me, this was one of those things… I refused to give up my Arts because I destroyed on knee – it had already taken so much away. I refused to give them up when I tore the second one – my passion never diminished.
I have modified, and persisted, and kept my eye on my goal – those two stripes will forever remind me that I have what it takes, no matter what. Having the heart is more than half the battle – never give up on you, or what brings you joy.