As a campus club closes, a void in local taekwondo

The recent closing of the University of Arizona American Taekwondo Club has left a void in Tucson’s taekwondo community.

And yes, there is a taekwondo community.

Taekwondo — a Korean martial art that combines elements of self-defense, combat and fitness — has been around for over a millennium, but the style of taekwondo practiced by the American Taekwondo Association, called Songahm Taekwondo, was developed over the course of 20 years by Haeng Ung Lee, who is called eternal grand master, and has been around for 45 years. Songahm taekwondo is designed to allow a person of any age, any weight, and any height to learn and master the art of taekwondo through hard work and dedication.

“Our program was fast and efficient,” said Jackie Adriano, the club’s head instructor for the last five years. The club graduated over 20 black belts during its 25 years as a university sports club. It took three years to earn a black belt in the club’s program. At the average taekwondo school, it takes close to five years to do the same. Adriano believes this speed and efficiency is why the club produced so many leaders in the taekwondo community. With the closure of the club, Adriano is unsure where the community’s leaders are going to come from.

There are currently over 1,500 American Taekwondo Association schools and clubs in the world, with just over 1,000 of those in the U.S. Over 300,000 people practice Songahm taekwondo worldwide; 53,000 of those are black belts and 3,000 are certified instructors. With such a large base, the closure of one club seems inconsequential, but for Tucson’s taekwondo community it could be a large detriment to the future. “The UA club played an important part in the infrastructure of taekwondo schools in Tucson,” said Diana Perry, an assistant teacher at the Sunrise Taekwondo School in Tucson. “The club has provided a lot of the best taekwondo instructors in Tucson.”

There are two other prominent taekwondo schools in Tucson that practice under the American Taekwondo Association’s, Sunrise Taekwondo and Desert Taekwondo. Both of these schools graduate two to three black belts every year, but very few of those graduates stick around to lead in the local community.Both Perry and Heidi Lyons, another of Sunrises assistant instructors, were trained in the University of Arizona’s taekwondo club before switching over to Sunrise.

“I think one of the most important things about our club was that all the members were college students,” said Adriano. “They were still forming an idea of who they are and who they want to be, and they could decide those things for themselves. Adults lives are already locked down and high school students aren’t trying to make a life for themselves yet.”

Perry explained how these college students became leaders in the community through a chain of triggers which was facilitated by the club. She said college students are continuously trying to prove themselves, so the club encourages participation in state and national tournaments. At these competitions, students meet the highest ranking black belts and learn from them in addition to competing against other students from across the country. They become engrained in the culture of American Taekwondo. By the time students receive their black belts, they’re relationships in taekwondo run throughout the state.

“Students get their black belts, and then they go to competitions and talk to one of the masters that they’ve met in the past,” Perry said. “Masters ask them if they’re going to join the teaching program and learn to be an instructor, and most people decide to do it.” Perry says that people who get their black belts while they’re in college are the ones who are most likely to make a life out of teaching taekwondo.

“Teaching taekwondo is a fun career, but it’s one that adults have trouble transitioning into because it’s so different,” said Perry. “I’ve seen a lot of adults at Sunrise start the teaching program to become an instructor but they never make the transition to a career in taekwondo. It’s hard to learn how to live your life doing something you enjoy and it’s scary to change your career later in your life. That’s why so many of the leaders in our community are people who started in the UA club.”

Without the club, Adriano isn’t sure where the community’s leaders are going to come from. The head instructor at Sunrise came from out of state, but he’s the exception to the rule. While it’s unlikely that the taekwondo community will fade out the way the University of Arizona taekwondo club did, there are going to be fewer instructors coming out of Tucson, and the city’s presence in the national taekwondo community will become nearly non-existent.

“I hope we can reinstate the club eventually,” said Adriano. “We’ll never recapture that 25 year legacy, but hopefully we can keep Tucson relevant in national competition and keep the community up and running.”

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