(Photos by Chris Moore, Staff)
Taekwondo is Korea's national sport and loosely translated means "the way of smashing with foot and hand." Taekwondo develops strength, speed, balance, flexibility and stamina.
Testing in taekwondo is for advancement in belts by students. The lowest of the colored belts is white, with the highest colored belt to achieve being black. The black belts range from first degree up to ninth.
Master Tim Wall and instructor Erica Vaughn ran the testing for 14 students ranging in ages from five to 39, including one female.
"Each belt rank has a different amount of time and grade," said Wall. "Time and grade is the months spent between each belt and it also has to correspond with point requirement. One class is worth one point. The students have to have the time and grade met, plus the point requirement to test."
The feeling in the room is one of uneasiness from the students. The room is quiet, even with a handful of five and six-year olds. Each student is going through their routines with concentration firmly written across their faces.
"I am always nervous heading into the test," said Sikeston native John Abate, 39. "It is kind of one of those things you know the material, but you know Master Wall will make it tough. He is fond of saying that he never gives the belts away, so you know you are in for a workout."
Promptly at 11 a.m. Master Wall begins the testing. Wall and Vaughn sit behind a table in front of a mat with the 14 students, with eyes firmly fixed in judgment of the task to be performed. The students are in two rows of seven in apt attention.
Taekwondo has five basic principles that the students will have to perform to pass. The test usually lasts two hours, but the tests can go longer depending on the advancement of the student.
"The five disciplines of taekwondo are warm-ups, the calisthenics, the basic fundamentals, the punches and kicks, the forms or 'katas' as called in Japanese martial arts and one-step sparring," said Wall.
For the next two hours, these students will give everything of themselves for a new belt.
Master Wall instructs the students to begin the test by running in place, followed by a series of punching exercises. Wall is intense, but encouraging, wanting nothing but effort and desire from his students.
The punching exercise is followed by 30 push-ups and sit-ups, 40 jumping jacks, 20 squat thrusts and the session ends with 10 kicks with the left and right leg. A two-minute rest is taken at 11:05 a.m.
The students are red-faced with sweat pouring from their bodies and their chest heaving for the next breathe. Despite the weariness that is starting to set in for some, the students are still at attention for the next command from Master Wall.
The warm-up lasts until 11:30 a.m. with more punches and kicks to be had in that 30 minutes. Wall barks directions in English and in Korean to the students who seem to understand some of the Far East language. At 11:15 a.m., an exhausted young student asked to be excused after feeling sick to his stomach. A break is called at 11:35 a.m.
"What I am looking for in a white belt is how hard they try," said Wall. "I am also looking for their willingness to accept critique. Also in their first test, I am giving them an idea of how serious I take this test.
"For my top belts today, I am looking for the crispness of the technique, fluidity, consistency of chambers and all the things that make the technique right."
The students break up into their respective belts at 11:40 a.m. to begin forms. Like a choreographed dance, the students go through a series of pattern movements of steps, punches and blocks that make up the forms.
At 11:50 a.m., the students begins one-on-one sparring. The sparring is controlled and no actual kicks or punches are landed. However, the students come within a whisker of making contact and the control is truly amazing to watch.
After the sparring, the advanced students demonstrate their skill on breaking pieces of wood. The demonstration is impressive and shows not only physical barriers the students have to overcome, but the mental ones as well.
Sikeston native and SEMO student Sergio Ramos is the highest level student at the testing and breaks the most wood with his hands and feet. Ramos is trying for 1st gup, a step below obtaining the coveted black belt. This is Ramos' ninth test he has attempted.
"Going up as a rank there is much more simpler details like lines and joints of angles of your arms and legs," said Ramos, age 19. "Every test I dread because I know it is going to be harder than the last."
Master Wall instructs the students that the test is nearly done. Only one obstacle stands in the way...the effort test which begins at 12:30 p.m.
More push-ups, sit-ups and squat thrusts to end the testing. After five minutes, another student has to excuse himself to the bathroom. The pain is etched across the faces of the 14 students. Relief is achieved at 12:40 p.m. when Master Wall is satisfied with the students' effort.
"The toughest part for me is the beginning and the end of the test," said Abate, who is going for his purple belt. "The warm-ups are a little harder than they are in regular class. The last five minutes of calisthenics is also difficult. You're tired from doing the test, so it is that much harder to get through."
Elizabeth Engram from Sikeston sums up the feeling of many of the students after her sixth test.
"I was pretty much a nervous wreck," said Engram, age 15, who like Abate is going for her purple belt. "I hate these tests. The hardest part of the test for me is the warm-up and the basics because we do so much in those areas."
The students are asked to sit in two rows with their backs facing Wall and Vaughn. The students are asked to come up one at a time and face the instructors.
First, Vaughn determines if she believes the student is worthy to advance with a simple pass or fail. Wall, who has been the motivating factor throughout the testing for the students, simply concurs or is in disfavor.
"I have already determined before they have ever gotten here pretty much if they will pass or not," said Wall. "The actual test itself, because it is so physical and how assertive I am toward the students, is a test of their character. How bad do they really want it?"
Red tape around the current belt is a symbol that a student has graduated to the next belt. On this testing day, all 14 students achieve red tape.