I’ve written lots of articles over the years, but this is the first time I’ve ever written one from Little Rock, Arkansas! I remember the first time I traveled here in the summer of 1984. I’d joined the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) in 1983, and was excited about going to compete with other Blue Belts in my first national competition.
We always had five Regional Taekwondo Tournaments a year, along with Spring Nationals in Las Vegas, and Fall Nationals at Disney in Orlando, FL. But the biggest one was held every summer in Little Rock, called Grand Nationals. It was the end of the year for people competing for National Championships, and also the start of the new tournament year.
Once I became a Black Belt, we worked to accumulate points during the year. If you had enough of them, you got to compete in the Top 10 from around the country (and later, the world) for first place. In those days, the winner was a National Champion, but later, when South America, Canada, Europe, and Korea got involved, it became a world title.
I was never good enough to win it all, but I was in the Top 10 a couple of times. Still, I enjoyed competing because I always felt that simply showing up was winning, in a lot of ways. When I’d face someone amazing, who really was on another level, that was O.K. It was kind of a privilege to step out of myself and watch em whooping up on me. Some of them sure did it in style!
If I hung in there for awhile, blocked a few, got a couple pints and generally made it tough for them, that was great. If they smoked me, that wasn’t so great, but you still had to appreciate their skill. And that was where you saw people at that skill level. The best I ever did was a 2nd place in forms and sparring down here as a 2nd Degree Black Belt, and then much later, a 2nd place at Disney as a 5th Degree.
Over the years, the Nationals and Worlds became educational trips in other ways, with clinics and seminars. So it was always a time for learning and bringing back more knowledge and programs for our local students.
But after 23 years of 3 nationals a year, I’d gotten a little tired of all the traveling and time away. So I took a break from the national scene that I thought it would be for just a little while, but ended up lasting six years. In the meantime, some life changes here at home kept me pretty busy, so it was easy to let the other thing go.
Time went by, as it always does. My young son became a Tiny Tiger Taekwondo student, and suddenly, I started getting the itch again. I’d kept pretty busy with the fitness center, and covering our Taekwondo classes from time to time. I’d also put in lots of training and teaching in Brazilian JiuJitsu over the years, which is an outstanding grappling art that teaches you how to survive on the ground. But somehow, I found myself missing Taekwondo, too.
So last Spring, I broke my silence and went to Spring Nationals in Vegas for some seminars and basically, to just “show up.” I actually had other Masters come up and tell me they thought I’d fallen off the planet, which of course I had. Of my original Masters class, called the Tiger Masters of 2006, almost all of them had long since tested for 7th Degree and become Senior Masters.
Now I would have been eligible to test in 2011, but you can’t test if you’re not there! And I was also way behind in leadership points from all the missed national events. At the higher levels, you not only have to look pretty good, but you’ve also got to accumulate a lot of points before you can get permission to test.
So it was pretty motivating to see all my old friends who had moved up. I knew I had a long way to go, but it was a great trip in the Spring, almost like coming home. While I was there, I registered for this World Conference here in Little Rock. I figured the best way to get my feet wet was to just jump in.
I started training in earnest after that, and thanked God when I saw that many of the skills were still there, albeit a little rusty. My hips and hamstrings were a little tight, since they hadn’t been used as much in the last five years. But that was something that I could work through.
In the meantime, the ATA had developed a FitTest, a 5 minute series of exercises and combinations that you do right AFTER your actual testing to make sure you were physically fit. They were wanting to avoid the situation where someone gets promoted to a high black belt rank but then gets fat and lazy, as we’ve sometimes seen. Now this part, I had covered!
So I started working on my form, sparred and broke boards when I could. It wasn’t enough to satisfy me, but hopefully enough to be competent and not embarrass myself, God, my students, or my instructor!
When I stepped out on the testing floor this morning, it was pretty amazing (by the time you read this, it will have been last Friday morning). It felt right being back out there, at what turned out to be a record breaking Black Belt testing. Over 400 others were there from around the country. I saw some others from Canada, and several from South America.
Things went pretty well. It wasn’t perfect, but I never expected it to be. I just wanted to get the feeling of performing again under pressure, in front of a high ranking testing panel. I also wanted to be proven credible, in my original martial art, among my peers and seniors. It was my second of a minimum of four required midterms, and I left having done some decent things but most importantly, knowing what to work on next.
So the next stop will be in Orlando, FL this fall, when I’ll do another midterm review. This will keep me training and preparing. Then, I’ll do another in Las Vegas in the Spring if necessary. By then, I should be pretty well back up to speed.
While here, I picked up another training seminar in Combat Weapons, for a single short stick called a Bahng Mahng Ee (which really means single short stick). Our kids can now spar with them in competition, and I wanted to get certified so I could teach them the whole new curriculum.
I’d begun introducing it to our students over the summer, after taking the first seminar in Vegas last Spring. Now, with all this new information, we can really give them the latest training to help improve their reflexes, movement skills, and their understanding of tactics and strategy.
But more than the personal accomplishment this weekend, and even the new material I can share at our local martial arts school, I’m coming home with something else: the knowledge that there’s still a place for me as a master of martial arts, but also as a student. It turns out that the light still burns pretty strong in me, and I can’t wait to share it.
Note: Tom Dolan is a 6th Degree Black Belt and Master Instructor in the American Taekwondo Association, the largest centrally administered martial arts organization in the world. He’s been training in the ATA for over 32 years and received his 6th Degree Black Belt in 2005, and the title of Master in 2006. He’s currently working on meeting the requirements for promotion to 7th Degree. He also has a Purple Belt in Brazilian JiuJitsu (the equivalent of 1st Degree Black Belt in other traditional styles), a M.A. in Exercise Science and Sport Biomechanics, and owns and operates Tom’s Fitness and Martial Arts in Paris, IL.