Within a week the three of us (my dad, my brother, and myself) were in tying white belts for the first time. Kicking, striking, blocks, sparring, and board breaking lay ahead of us. Unfortunately so did jumping jacks, knuckle push ups, air punches, learning to count in Korean, and mastery of forms. I can still recite four of the five tenets of tae kwon do without trying: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control, and Indomitable Spirit (self-control is the one I usually forget).
For three nights each week - Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday - we attended class. The first half was comprised of stretching, cardio, strength, and technique training. Then, after a good sweat, we would take a water break before resuming class. The second half was my favorite because we typically sparred or broke boards. Occasionally we had to learn or work on forms.
Forms were my least favorite part of tae kwon do. They were complex pieces of choreographed techniques done in rhythm with a group. I had to remember the steps, the beat, and the techniques. Focusing on myself was hard enough, but keeping in time with the rest of the group was even harder. On top of that, moves had to be more crisp and more exaggerated than usual. The first half of every advancement tests was a form.
Every other month we had the opportunity to test for advancement. The tests were on pre-scheduled Saturdays and were judged by a tribunal. Master Heintz would always be joined by his instructor, Grandmaster Jung. The third judge would be another Master black belt, sometimes a guest from Korea. In addition to forms, we would be tested over recently learned techniques, improvement of older techniques, sparring ability, and ability to break boards using relevant techniques. We would also be quizzed on the tenets of tae kwon do and counting in Korean. Over time we also learned and were quizzed on a few important Korean words and phrases.
Eric Heintz Black Belt Academy broke up the belts more than other traditional schools. He felt that this encouraged students and strengthened their determination. Whereas some schools give only a single level for each belt above the third, Heintz added sub levels to allow for continuous tests on a bimonthly basis. Materials in the dojang explained his philosophy and the meanings of the various belt levels; they also explained why some dojangs use different colors. Two Rivers Martial Arts (the spiritual successor to Eric Heintz Black Belt Academy) bases their belt colors and philosophies off of the same materials.
I advanced through the belt levels: White, Yellow, Orange, Green (two levels), Blue (two levels), and Brown (six levels total) between my eighth and tenth grades. When I took a break from tae kwon do during my sophomore year of high school, I had reached the fifth level of the brown belt. Only two test remained from the first level of black. Unfortunately a mix of circumstances kept me at the First Gup (temporary) indefinitely.
When I started tae kwon do I was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed around 160 pounds (or more). I was fat and out of shape. By the time I reached my last belt two years later, I was 140 pounds of muscle standing at about 5' 8" or so. My body fat percentage was negligible.
--I should note that tae kwon do was not my sole exercise during this time. In addition to an increase in my bike riding, I worked at Hy Vee and spent several hours during the week on my feet; that alone burned more calories than my previous sedentary lifestyle. More importantly, I took Scuba diving classes during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I was certified as on open water diver in August of 1994. Scuba, like most water-based activities, burns a ton of calories without much effort.*My leave from tae kwon do came about primarily because of my transportation to and from school during the fall of my sophomore year. Lincoln's head wrestling coach lived down the street from me and offered to take me to school. Part of that meant that I had to participate in a sport during his season. My choices were basketball, swimming or wrestling. My lack of a vertical (I'm telling you that Wesley Snipes movie is about me) and competitive basketball history pretty much knocked that out of contention. There was no way I would don a Speedo and shave my legs, so swimming was out. That left wrestling; with my tae kwon do background and newly fit body I figured I would be fine.
The good news is that my low body fat meant that I only had to shed water before weigh ins. The bad news is that I was no Hulk Hogan on the mat. I was tone but not muscular, which caused me to face shorter guys with a ton of strength. These guys knew that they would never play basketball or anything requiring a more than 5'5" so they dedicated themselves to the sport. Still, like most things, I worked hard and pushed myself beyond my limits. Although I wrestled at 135 (or up at 140 depending on the team's needs), I worked with the heavyweights.
I wrestled JV for the entire season. I am not ashamed to admit it, and I am not ashamed of my dismal performance (I do not remember my record, but lets just say it was on the wrong side). I did come in third at my first Saturday tournament and was leading another in points for most of the day. Unfortunately for me I was disqualified.
True story: I was killing a guy in points but my coach wanted me to get the pin. So I went to set the pin and he got his hand free. He then "checked my oil" (if you are unfamiliar with that term, ask any wrestler). I jumped, screamed, and punched him in the face. Oops. I was done for the day.
Wrestling was never my first choice when it came to playing for Lincoln. I tried to play football in both my freshman and sophomore years and planned on playing soccer during my freshman year. My parents, however, would not sign the consent forms or pay the activity fees for either sport. Because I rode to school with Coach McGivern, they had no choice but to let me wrestle. My mom made nearly every meet and tournament. She was a wrestling cheerleader way back when she was in high school and loved the sport.
Over the course of the season, I sustained many injuries. I brushed most of them off and continued. A lingering back pain was a frustration, but I ignored it. During Spring Break that year I was playing baseball with a group of friends when I collapsed in center field. The pain was so unbearable that one of my unlicensed friends had to drive me home. When my mom took me to the doctor the next day, we found out that I tore some ligaments in my lower back. Needless to say my wrestling career was done, especially after my work with the heavy weights was decided to be the most probably cause.
While I wrestled, Master Heintz took a bad turn. A severe ulcer resulted in the complete loss of his stomach. He turned the school over to the black belts while I recovered from my injury. My dad and brother had continued attending in my absence, but their frustration with the direction of the managing black belts eventually led them to stop. A growing work schedule compounded the issue for me and I never returned.
Because of his illness, Master Heintz retired from tae kwon do in 1998. Several former students, including a few that started around the same time as myself, opened Two Rivers Martial Arts with his blessing. I have often contemplated returning to the dojang, but have yet to do so. My employer is willing to pay for a gym membership, but will not pay for tae kwon do. In my case, joining a gym is worthless as I need motivation and direction to work out. Tae kwon do always provided that. Regardless, I will probably not rejoin tae kwon do any time soon since many other activities have taken hold of my life...
The next installment will be all about the primary source of my current taste in sports. You might be surprised, but anyone that really knows me will probably see it coming...
Continue to Part 6
*My certification is lifelong, but I have not dived since high school. As much as I would like to, there are several things holding me back. Money is the most obvious reason.