That’s a First / Kicking off the new year
Editor’s note: Once a month, reporter Justin Papp will chronicle his efforts to try something new on his path to self improvement in 2018. This month he spends training in taekwondo at Fairfield’s World Champion Taekwondo located in Fairfield Sportsplex.
FAIRFIELD — I don’t know how to throw a punch.
That was one of several misgivings plaguing me when I showed up to my first taekwondo class a little before the 9 a.m. start time, tired and nervous for my first foray into martial arts.
Others were: I hope I don’t get hit in the face; I don’t want to be barefoot on this mat with strangers; and I should still be in bed.
At that time, there was only one man present to welcome me to World Champion Taekwondo, located in Fairfield’s Sportsplex. On either side of a small, cubbied welcoming area — where students deposit their shoes, socks and personal belongings — are rectangular rooms with blue rubber flooring, called a dojang. Both feature one mirrored wall. In the larger of the two, an American and South Korean flag hang prominently in the front of the classroom. Banners and photos celebrating students and teachers who have excelled in competitions fill out the walls, as do training bags and shelves full of sparring pads of varying shapes and sizes.
The man who greeted me was Master Shawn Kennedy, corn-rowed, laconic and barrel-chested even in the oversized robe, called a gi, that is worn when practicing the sport. After a short exchange, he directed me to take off my shoes and stretch out in the bigger space.
Over the course of five classes, Master Shawn and his students would provide a very brief — and moderately successful — introduction to taekwondo.
In 1968, the writer and one of the founding editors of the Paris Review, George Plimpton, donned shoulder pads and a helmet and draped a Detroit Lions jersey over his frail torso and took a snap in a preseason scrimmage. He was quickly sacked.
“I’m a participatory journalist, which means that I enter other people’s professions in order to write articles and books on what happens,” Plimpton once explained.
His participatory stunts include sharing a screen with John Wayne in a Western, playing percussion for the New York Philharmonic, and sparring with boxing legend Archie Moore.
Plimpton’s experiences were recorded in books and in the pages of publications like Sports Illustrated and can be seen in grainy black and white on YouTube.
Along the same lines, my experiences, beginning with my time in the dojang, will be recorded in these pages once a month for the next year, the idea being that I will enter into unlikely and uncomfortable situations and, hopefully, amass a set of new skills and experiences.
According to Master Kwangjin Ha, who owns the school of more than 200 students and competitors, taekwondo is a martial art created in South Korea in the middle of the 20th century that emphasizes high kicks and balanced defensive moves.
“Taekwondo has three symbols. ‘Tae’ means foot — we train barefoot — ‘kwon’ means bare fist, and ‘do’ means the path of a martial artist — discipline, self control,” said Ha, a native Korean who goes by Master KJ and has been practicing since he was in third grade.
Master Shawn’s path was different. He had limited interaction with the sport before being coaxed into a class while picking up his nephew from the school 12 years ago. He recently passed his fourth-degree black belt test and, once or twice in my time to demonstrate a point, unleashed a short, dizzying combination of kicks and footwork that hinted at his remarkable skill.
I entered classes with Master Shawn that, during the week, were attended mostly by middle-aged men and women whose children first attended and then recruited them into class. Many were former athletes. One was a cancer survivor. Another had once competed at nationals and was now rehabbing an injury. In Saturday morning classes, by contrast, teenagers with boundless energy and elastic flexibility were thrown into the mix.
All had ascended to higher ranks in the school’s 14-step belt progression, beginning with white and ending with black.
The classes started simple: stretching and a bit of cardio to warm up, then basic overviews of proper technique, blocking motions, fist making and maintaining a balanced fighting stance.
“Without balance, it’s hard to make a power strike. It’s like kicking on ice. If you don’t have balance, no matter how good your kick, you’ll never approach the opponent, you’ll never get that damage,” Master KJ explained after class one day.
This concept of balanced, efficient movements — throwing punches and kicks that didn’t compromise the stance — along with the choreography of self-defense, are two I never mastered.
I was never able to fully override the urge to hit an opponent’s blocking pad with all my strength, causing me to land off balance and expose myself to defensive strikes. Nor was I able to master the choreography of the sport’s four core defensive moves: low block, inside block, outside block and high block. Rather than moving my hands like a car’s pistons, with one retreating to my side as the leading hand extended to make a block, my movements would clumsily cross and I’d leave myself vulnerable.
The latter failure has kept me, as I write this, from attaining my fourth and final “tape” in defense, that would have allowed me to test for my first belt.
But with my failures, came small improvements in equal measure. My movements became more efficient, my kicks sharper and my punches slightly more controlled. I accumulated tapes for form, combination kicks and breaking, which I pessimistically thought would take me many attempts.
But, under the guidance of Master Shawn, I was successful on my first try.
“If you don’t focus so much on trying to make the power, if you relax, you get where you’re trying to go,” said Master Shawn.
I swung downward at the thin wooden slab with a closed fist, as one would swing a hammer, and easily snapped the board, which will remain on my desk — a cleaved certificate of participation.
Once a month, reporter Justin Papp will chronicle his efforts to try something new on his path to self improvement. Contact him at email@example.com; @justinjpapp1.