Nearly four hours into the exam for his black belt in Tae Kwan Do, Nick Seidell had reached a moment of truth. His first several attempts at breaking three wood boards with a flying sidekick had failed, and he admitted to Master Sharma that his feet hurt and he was tired.
Sharma was less concerned with Seidell’s fatigue than what he perceived to be poor form that was not going to break any boards. Seidell, said Sharma, was not striking the board directly or with enough force.
It didn’t help that Seidell is 12 years old and weighs 58 pounds.
"I want all of those 58 pounds going right at that board," said Sharma from behind his scoring table, "[but] if you’re not going to hit that board, sit down. … Are you going to hit it?"
"I’m going to hit it," Seidell said. Seidell turned away from Sharma, faced his target, and began to sprint. All 58 pounds of Seidell flew through the air and with his leg extended he struck the boards.
A sharp snap sounded throughout the room. Parents and participants alike erupted with cheers and clapping.
Seidell turned towards Sharma, bowed.
"Charyut kyung nyeh," said Seidell, Korean for ‘attention, bow,’ which is a sign of respect.
"Charyut kyung nyeh," said Sharma.
Seidell turned and walked away, then sat down smiling.
SEIDELL WAS one of six members of East-West Tae Kwon Do that successfully tested for their black belts on Saturday, Feb. 24. Chase Belford, Robert Gutierrez, Margaret Guzikowski, Sophie Jin, Amanda Lee, and Seidell range in age from 12 to 17, and all of them save for Margaret and Sophie began with Sharma at age 4.
"You’ve worked hard in eight years," said Sharma to his pupils. "You’ve come a long way since I’ve known you; I have a little lump in my throat. … It’s a great accomplishment [of the] mind, body and spirit."
The test took nearly five hours during which time each student was tested in all of the fundamental forms and movements — six different sets of kicks, blocks and hand strikes — as well as their Chongi — their balance, coordination, rhythm and power, said Sharma. Each student also demonstrated self-defense moves such as disarming an assailant who has a knife. Candidates also sparred, taking on one, then two, and finally three other students at a time. Finally came the wood-breaking demonstrations, where students broke one, two and three boards.
"It’s a very challenging test, it flows from one event to another," said Sharma.
"The forms were really hard because I didn’t expect to have to do them [so many] times and I got really tired," said Lee.
Surviving the rigorous test wasn’t as difficult as making it through eight years of training, said Sharma.
"Like everything, it’s hard for children to stay focused for that long," Sharma said. "It’s a long journey."
"They all worked their way through together," said Pete Belford, Chase Belford’s father. "They fought together, trained together, learned together," said Pete Belford.
TAE KWON DO, said Sharma, is a fighting style originated by ancient Korean warriors, and once he began doing it at age 16 he was hooked. After he graduated from college, Sharma taught in school teacher for two years until he decided to teach Tae Kwon Do instead.
Sharma opened his first studio in College Park, then moved to Potomac 20 years ago, Sharma said. He operated a studio in Potomac Village for several years before moving to a space in the Sts. Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church on River Road.
"The church has been a great place to be because there’s so much space," said Sharma.
"I like the atmosphere — we’re like a family because we help each other," said Jin.
Cathy Belford, Chase Belford’s mother, heard about Sharma and signed Chase up when he was 4 years old. Cathy Belford thought that Chase was going to be smaller than other children so she wanted him to grow up with confidence. Chase grew to a normal size for his age, Cathy Belford said, but she said that the lessons he has learned have been as valuable as she had hoped.
"Just to get up in front of a crowd and to keep trying makes you dig deep within yourself," said Cathy Belford.
EACH STUDENT had some struggles on the road to getting their black belts, they said. The demands of school and other athletic pursuits competed for their time, and training was rigorous.
"Certain days are hard because you come to class and you get beat up and stuff and you have to maintain your composure," said Lee.
Remembering each of the moves is difficult because there are so many, said Jin, and the key is figuring out the best way to learn.
"For me, I can’t watch other people do it, I just have to do it myself," Jin said.
Sparring presented the biggest challenge to Seidell, who is smaller than most of the children his age, he said.
"A lot of people are bigger than me. I just had to come to practice a lot to get better," Seidell said.
Now that they have their belts, each student said they intend to continue with Tae Kwon Do.
"Quitting would be like deleting everything I did," said Gutierrez.
Lee said that earning her black belt won’t be the end of her pursuit of Tae Kwon Do because she enjoys the sport and the art involved.
"Black belt isn’t the end, it’s the second chapter. … It’s not all about rank."
"Master Sharma always told us Tae Kwon Do is like sharpening a pencil," said Seidell. "Each rank you get is a symbol that you are sharper than you were before." Now that they have their black belts, Seidell said, that won’t change.
"There’s always the option of writing cursive."