In the two years or so since I first took up Taekwon-do, most of the students at roughly the same grade as me had taken part in several competitions but, for various reasons, I just never put myself forward. I did like the idea of competing, though, so back in June I opted to skip a grading in order to hone my technique so that I could compete at blue tag level at the Taekwon-do Champions League event in September.
However, when September rolled around the event was held for juniors only and I didn’t want to hold off on grading any longer. Reluctantly I did my blue belt grading and figured that once people got to that standard they’d know what they were doing in competitions and I’d only get schooled now I’d left it so late.
Still, my friends in the class kept telling me I should at least give it a go because, as the belts progress, there’s only a very narrow window before you get to black belt and at that point the standard really does ramp up. I was keen to give it a go before the chance was gone.
I made my mind up to compete in the final Taekwon-do Champions League event of the year, which was held on November 9th in Wishaw Sports Centre. Elisha had wanted to come too, but the date clashed with her cousin’s birthday and she opted to sit it out. She had been to a competition in June and hadn’t really got that excited about it after failing to pick up a medal, so I didn’t put any pressure on her to go this time around.
Although not a particularly late one, being out for a birthday night out on the eve of the competition wasn’t the best preparation I could have made. After a poor sleep I made my mind up in short order that I’d do the pattern and special technique competitions, but I wasn’t going to enter the sparring. If there’s not enough people they lump all the weight categories together and I didn’t want to be getting pummelled by someone 15kg heavier than me whilst I was half asleep!
My friend John drove us up there with his daughter Ellie and the pair of them have done a number of competitions now. Both had won medals the week before in the prestigious Professor Chang Ung Cup, so they had high hopes of taking something home from Wishaw. I just hoped not to disgrace myself!
At the sports centre I changed into my dobok and made my way into the competition hall, meeting my friend from class, Carlton, on the way in. Once inside the hall, looking around at the officials dressed in black and all of the participants stretching and warming up, I felt a little nervous for the first time. I’ve taken part in precisely one martial arts competition in my lifetime, back when I was 16, and it was a disaster, so I had to shake that flashback out of my head promptly.
After registering and paying the fee, I Joined my Helensburgh Taekwon-do class mates on a vacant mat in the far corner of the hall and set about warming up and practising my pattern. The way it works is that you usually perform the pattern that you’ve just graded on, rather than the one you’re currently learning. That way you should be nailing it and, due to my decision to skip a grading in June, I felt that my pattern, Yul Gok, was pretty bang on.
Going through the 38 moves a few times, I checked my timing, my stances, my hand positions, and that I was starting and finishing on the same spot (something I’m quite meticulous about). I maybe wasn’t as sharp as I had been when I graded, but I felt that I had a decent shot at impressing the judges. It really can be a crap shoot, as you never know who you’ll be sharing the mat with when the time comes. It could be a clumsy guy who scraped through his last grading or it could be a future grand master in the making who’s going to sail to the gold!
As the nerves began to build I distracted myself by playing with Ellie – getting her to do back flips holding onto my hands and showing her how to do “the worm” move on the mats. It was the kind of thing I’d be doing with her pal Elisha if she had been there, so it was cool to have Ellie around.
Looking around the hall I saw a few faces I recognised from the Ginger Ninja Trickster seminar that me and Elisha had attended a few weeks before, so I went up and said hello to them whilst waiting to be called to the mat for the weigh in. If there’s one thing that seems almost universal about the Taekwon-do community, it’s that everyone is friendly. All but the most naturally talented recognise that it takes dedication and practise to work through the belts, so there’s a kinship of sorts – especially amongst the veterans, I think.
When time came to line up and give our weights I intended to tell the official that I wasn’t going to do the sparring, but it turned out that there was such a big discrepancy in weight between myself and Carlton at 74kg and the rest of the guys at over 90kg that there would only be two of us competing in our category. Rather than concede and give Carlton a walkover I decided I’d give it a go and there’d be no shame in losing to him, considering he had previously competed and this was my first attempt.
I figured that whatever happened for the rest of the day, I should act like I’d been there before and not let it phase me.
Carlton was one of the first up in the pattern competition and although he started off strong, he and the guy up with him had both started too close to the centre of the mat and practically crashed into the judges table in the middle of their attempt. This caused his concentration to lapse and he switched to a different pattern after the turn at the halfway point.
I said “Oh no!” immediately, as I saw what had gone wrong, but it would be another couple of moves before Carlton realised he’d blown it. I was gutted for him as he was sent to sit at the top edge of the mat – the thought that I could do the same really stirred the butterflies.
I was next up and I was drawn against a guy from another club. I made sure to walk right to the back of the mat before turning to face the judges and made a conscious effort to just focus off into the distance. While I thought I did okay, I realised I was rushing a little bit and had to reel it in for the final 10 moves. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever done it, but I hoped I’d done well enough to get through to the next round and was disappointed that I lost the split decision, with only one of the judges siding with me.
Sent to sit with Carlton, I could at least take comfort in the fact I’d got through my pattern and experienced doing it front of the judges.
What was infuriating was that one guy got a bye because there was an odd number of us. He then fluffed his pattern entirely in the next round – stopping in the middle and just walking back to his spot because he’d completely forgotten it, yet because of the bye he was awarded the bronze medal. I thought this was rubbish, considering out of the three of us who had lost out in the first round, two of us had completed the full pattern – we’d maybe just not been as perfect as the man we’d been up against.
I was annoyed enough to go up and ask the judges for some advice when it was all over, telling them it was my first competition and I would appreciate some tips on how I could maybe impress them and progress in future. The younger of the two was pretty vague, but the older one told me I hadn’t done anything wrong except maybe I could focus more on the final four or five moves of the pattern as that was the bit the judges usually made their mind up on if it was a close decision. Good to know in future, I thought.
Our classmate Daihlan also got knocked out in the first round and while he, Carlton and I were sitting on the reject corner of the mat feeling sorry for ourselves, John was off on a different mat with the red belts putting them to rights with his flawless execution. Good for John, obviously, but it made the efforts of the rest of the Helensburgh Taekwon-do lads look a bit shameful! 😉
The special technique of flying high kick was up soon after the pattern competition was done and I got through a few rounds of it. I was kind of content with that, as it’s not something we’ve done much practice at in class and it’s easy to pull a hamstring going for the flying high kick. Poor Daihlan did just that and it would come back to haunt him later.
Unsurprisingly the special technique was won by the tallest guy there, as it’s more about how high you can get your leg up than anything. I guess if you had a really high vertical leap you could get away with being shorter, but the reality is the guys over six foot tall have such an advantage. I don’t know if I’d bother with this particular special technique again, actually – it’s more likely to send me home with a pulled hamstring than a medal.
The waiting game
There seemed to be an age between the end of the special technique and the sparring for my grade. I initially sat about talking to a dad I’d met when Elisha & Ellie competed back in June, but figured I should keep myself moving instead.
So I spent the time warming up and stretching beside the spectator seats, going through some kicks at half speed and just trying to see what combinations I could put together. I’d been working on my 360 degree turning kick since the Ginger Ninja Trickster seminar and although I’m still pretty poor at it I figured I’d throw it in anyway.
I even said to Carlton that I’d try one during the fight because I figured if I was going to get on the mats and spar I might as well try to relax and throw some fun techniques in. Taekwon-do is supposed to be flamboyant and although I might not be capable of the most technically impressive kicks, I might as well try a few against an opponent who wasn’t going to destroy me for dropping my guard whilst I attempted them. Carlton seemed to agree, but said he wouldn’t be trying anything too fancy out there.
As the time wore on nobody was talking much, which indicated that nerves were bubbling up and game faces were on show. I’d eased off on the practicing and stretching because I didn’t want to run out of energy, so I was glad when they finally called us over to the same mat we’d performed our patterns on.
Those two minutes of effort
First fight of note was the red belt contest between John and a ridiculously tall guy. I said to Carlton that I didn’t envy John at all, but he gave a good account of himself once it got going. His back kick counter worked really well in the middle section of the fight so it was a shame he didn’t pick up on that sooner or he might have edged it.
Soon enough it was me and Carlton. You go up to the mat, bow to the judges, bow to each other, then there’s two minutes of sparring where you try to score as many points against your opponent as possible. It seems simple enough, but once the referee dropped his hand I didn’t really know what to do!
I just kind of bobbed about keeping my distance, throwing a tentative side kick in Carlton’s direction, unsure of how forceful or how committed I should be with an attack. I definitely didn’t want to do anything that might hurt my friend, but after a couple of big kicks to the body and a punch or two to the face I realised I was handing it to him on a plate because all the judges were seeing was me taking licks.
It must have been around the minute mark, when we were near the judges table that I figured I’d throw my well worn 180 degree jumping back kick to see if I could land something that would impress the judges and maybe get me back into it as a contest. Carlton is so tall that I figured if I got it right I’d probably hit him at chest height.
Throwing myself up and forward, I spun clockwise, holding as long as I could before releasing the kick. I didn’t really see where my foot struck, but as it did it felt like a crunching impact – far harder than I had intended. It turned out I caught him full in the back and side and I heard the assembled crowd perform a low “Ooooooh!” in a way that suggested something bad had just happened.
I had landed and jumped away to avoid a counter before I realised that Carlton was on the deck and the referee was stopping the fight. I immediately felt terrible because I didn’t mean to hurt him at all. I rushed forward to check if he was okay, but the referee told me to kneel on the other side of the mat facing away from my opponent, as is the custom, while Carlton recovered. I knew the drill. I went, I kneeled, and I shook my head in self disgust wondering whether he’d be okay and whether I’d be disqualified.
This bit was really awful. Probably not quite as awful as a flying back kick to the pancreas, I suppose, but I didn’t like not being able to see if he was okay and I was really upset with myself for committing so heavily to a kick I’ve broken boards with in class. I just hoped I hadn’t done any serious harm and was quite relieved when the referee told me to stand up again, to see that Carlton was back on his feet. I told the referee I felt bad and I asked if what I’d done was illegal, but he said it was fine and it was just that Carlton had spun at the same time and my kick had landed first, so I wasn’t cautioned.
I went to Carlton and apologised again, but he nodded that he was okay and the referee got us back into the middle of the mat to continue the fight. I figured it was a lost cause now, because I’d started off slowly and then managed to injure my opponent. So after the restart I tried to keep it squeaky clean until the end.
Somehow we then got offsetting cautions – me for grabbing Carlton’s leg and him for kicking below the belt! Tiredness was definitely affecting us by that point.
I half heartedly threw in the 360 degree turning kick that didn’t come particularly close to landing and made a meal of a jumping one-two punch that missed by miles. Carlton looked like he was tiring on the run in, so I did my best to move around the mats and flick in a few kicks and punches to at least make it look like I was still up to the task, but I was breathing hard myself as the clock wound down.
Standing at the end when the referee asked the judges to make their decision, I didn’t think at all that it would be me that won so I was genuinely surprised to see all the flags raised in my favour and have the referee hold my left arm aloft. “Act like you’ve been there.” resonated in my mind, so I just turned to bump gloves with Carlton and didn’t particularly celebrate.
While we were at the judges table to give our names, the judge from the far side of the mat came up and asked if I had “deliberately pulled the 360 kick.”
I didn’t “pull it” as much as “consciously acknowledge that I was unlikely to land it!”, so I said yes to him, because Carlton is my friend and I didn’t want to hurt him any worse than I had done with the jumping back kick. The judge nodded his approval and said “Well done – if you’d committed to that you could have knocked his block off!”
I acknowledge the compliment, but I think Carlton had taken the edge off of his attacks as well, because we weren’t on the mats trying to punish each other. The fact that either one of us could have landed a lucky/accidental shot that did a lot of damage kind of summed up why I’d always been nervous about sparring competitively. It could have been me on the deck and Carlton doing the kneel of shame.
Watching the fights that followed between the heavier guys only served to reinforce my previous take that, if I’d been grouped in with the heavyweights then I definitely wouldn’t have done the sparring. Those big guys didn’t seem to have any control and were pounding hard on each other.
Daihlan started off strong in his fight and for the first 40 seconds he was wiping the floor with the guy, before the hamstring he injured in the Special Technique really started to hamper him and his opponent landed a heavy and illegal looking rabbit punch. Daihlan was rattled by that and then taken down by an brutal and illegal turning kick to the knee. His opponent was rightly cautioned for that, but the damage was done and our man could hardly move from that point on and the fight was lost.
When it was all over, receiving the gold medal was quite a proud moment for me. I never thought I’d be competing in a martial arts event at the age of 42, never mind winning anything, so it felt like redemption for 16 year old me that took a pounding from a guy 20kg heavier!
With the competition over and the photos taken, the journey home was high in spirits. John had a gold for patterns and a silver for sparring, Ellie had a bronze for sparring, and I was taking home a gold for sparring and good experience from my first Taekwon-do competition.
I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, so I have a feeling it won’t be my last. 🙂