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Tae Kwon Do Tournament Dazzles

By Andrew C. Esensten, Contributing Writer

They splintered boards with their bare feet, punted skewered apples off of razor-sharp sword tips while blindfolded and performed a fight routine to hip-hop beats.

The demonstration and dance teams from Yong-In University mesmerized an audience of over 500 people on Sunday with their gravity-defying acrobatics and risky tricks as they participated in an international tae kwon do tournament held at the Gordon Indoor Track and Tennis Facility.

The first annual Yong-In University Presidential Cup, co-sponsored by the Harvard Taekwondo Club, featured 1,000 competitors from across the globe. Event organizers called it the largest tae kwon do tournament to be held in the Northeast in over a decade.

Participants from Korea, Canada and several states took part in the tournament’s three categories: poom-se, or forms, in which contenders execute a sequence of memorized movements; kyuk-pa, or breaking, which involves 1/4-inch pine boards; and kyorugi, or sparring.

Through a translator, Yong-In President Jung Heang Kim addressed the competitors, their families and the tae kwon do enthusiasts who packed the bleachers of the Track.

“Today is one of the most meaningful days since the establishment of the tae kwon do department at Yong-In University,” he said.

Yong-In, founded in 1953 and located in the South Korean capital of Seoul, is one of the world’s premier institutions for education in the martial arts.

Carl P. Desir ’05, the only undergraduate competing in the tournament for Harvard and a member of the Harvard Tae kwon do Club, won gold medals in forms and sparring for his weight class.

“It’s a very good feeling when you win,” Desir said, “but I have a long way to go to where I want to be.”

Desir, who has taken tae kwon do for 3 years and is a red stripe in rank—three levels below the black belt—will be the College’s lone representative in the Nov. 7 and 8 Collegiate Nationals competition held in Washington state.

In a friendly display of competitiveness, the United States and Korean National Teams faced off in a “Good Will Game” midway through the tournament. Men and women from each team fought same-sex opponents on two large, brightly-colored foam mats, winning points by striking vital areas such as the chest and—for older fighters—head.

As the scores were announced after each round, the largely American crowd reacted equally as enthusiastically for both teams.

In the end, the U.S. prevailed.

The most popular event of the day, though, was the performance by the Korean Demonstration Team, which received a standing ovation after the final board had been broken.

As part of the display, three Korean team members dressed as thugs beat up one of their teammates and stole his money. Before they could get away, however, a female teammate with an F.B.I. jacket engaged the criminals—one of whom had a knife—in a Matrix-style fight sequence.

Beverly, Mass. resident Janis C. Rogalski, who attended the tournament to watch her 11-year-old son Raymond compete, said she had no qualms about letting Raymond watch the simulated battle because “the children know that it’s only self-defense.”

Rogalski praised the philosophy of tae kwon do.

“They teach them non-violence, self-control and discipline,” she said.

Thirteen-year-old Carlos E. Rodriguez, from Rancho Santa Marguerita, Calif., called the tournament a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Rodriguez, who has taken tae kwon do for seven years and is a 2nd-dan black belt—the second degree of the highest rank—said he likes the sport because “it’s fun and it keeps me in shape.”

According to the tournament program, tae kwon do is the most popular martial art form in the world and is practiced by more than 20 million people in over 120 countries.

Master Peter H.U. Lee, head instructor for the Harvard taekwondo club and 6th-dan black belt, said he hoped the tournament would bring more attention to the sport.

“Tae kwon do is not as well known as some of the other martial arts,” Lee said. “Most people don’t know it’s an Olympic sport.”

Chris M. Franklin, 21, a 2nd-dan black belt who teaches children at World Class Tiger Kings in North Carolina, said tae kwon do—which means “the way of the hand and foot” in Korean—is about much more than kicks and punches.

“I love everything about tae kwon do,” Franklin said. “It’s a sport, but it’s more like a way of living.”

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