Less than two years ago, several discouraged athletes decided to start their own club. That club became a team. Now that team is the best in the country.
Entering as virtual unknowns, the Hopkins Olympic Taekwondo (HOT) team won 18 medals (6 gold, 7 silver and 5 bronze) at the 28th annual National Collegiate Taekwondo Association Championships held in Seattle on Nov. 7 and 8. They placed first overall and in the novice division, making them National Champions.
With over 200 teams from across the country and around 2,000 contestants competing in the NCTAC, the team's accomplishment means even more.
Many taekwondo teams in the U.S. exist only as clubs, as there is no collegiate governing body. Most colleges and universities refuse to recognize it as a Varsity sport. "It's hard to get Varsity status because a lot of schools consider it a liability," explained Alex Kramer, a junior black belt who is the club's vice president.
Taekwondo, a self-defense art that uses hands and feet to repel an enemy, was developed over 20 centuries in Korea. A fighting style that was prohibited during the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), it was largely practiced underground. Today, it is the most recognized Korean martial art. Taekwondo differs from other fighting styles such as karate and kung fu in that it focuses more on kicking techniques than punching. But unlike karate or kung fu, Taekwondo has also been an Olympic exhibition sport since 1988, and became a medal sport in 2000. It is now the most popular martial art in the world.
In addition to learning the physical aspects of Taekwondo, the discipline also focuses on philosophy, as students practice the virtues of respect, humility, and self-discipline.
Although there has been a Taekwondo club at Hopkins since the 1980s, in the past, members left the club due to it's refusal to practice Olympic taekwondo, which differs from the version the older club practiced.
Soon after, these members formed HOT, which now has some 50 active members and around 100 on its roster. The regular competition team consists of 30 members.
"We became popular really quickly," explained Kramer.
For nationals, the Universityx covered registration fees and half of the group's airfare and lodging. "It was kind of hard for us [to obtain funding] at first," Kramer said. "Most people don't expect a club that started a year or two ago to compete immediately." Although there are no qualifications for nationals, HOT decided that despite the University's help, the club could only afford to send 15 members.
"It was a pretty intensive tryout process," Kramer said.
During early first semester, the club had tryouts during one of their class periods. Each member sparred with another member in order to measure skill and endurance. The club's two coaches, Master Joseph Pirczhalski III and Master Yong Seong "C.J." Chang, handpicked the members who would go to nationals.
Pirczhalski and Chang (who studied under Pirczhalski) teach members of the club free of charge. Both teach at the U.S. Taekwondo Academy, which has locations in Baltimore and Virginia.
"A couple Hopkins kids came to learn taekwondo in Baltimore City and asked if I could come to Hopkins," Chang said. "As a master, I enjoy watching kids grow under me and embracing this knowledge."
The club attributes much of its success to the strength of its masters.
Although the team won recognition ranging from yellow belt (beginner) to black belt (advanced), the effect of Chang and Pirczhalski's teachings is evident in the team's success in the novice (non-black belt) division. "The people that did the best [at nationals] were the novices--that reflects really well on the team," said Kramer. "It shows that the main success of our club was the people we trained." While most of the officers came to Hopkins with black belts from various places, all of the team's novice members have only been trained by Chang and Piczhalski.
One of the novices is junior Jessica Treidl, who was convinced by Kramer to join HOT. "I've been a dancer, so he thought that I would be really good at it," Treidl explained. A member since the club's inception, Treidl earned a gold medal for form and sparring in the high greenbelt division.
"I feel fortunate to be a part of the team," she said. Treidl is now competing beyond the collegiate level.
But Chang admits that quality training only got the team so far.
"We have such great team spirit," he said. "That's something that not a lot of teams have." Chang added that the team's leaders were also a major factor. "These... individuals are the ones who sacrificed classes and exams," he said. "Without them, we wouldn't be where we stand right now."
"This is a really big deal for the team and for Hopkins, because it is not often that Hopkins gets to compete against top schools at a national level in sports, let alone win," explained President Rifat Chowdhury.
"We were completely surprised that we could accomplish this much in this little time," Kramer said. "We wanted to be ambitious, but no one set this goal."
Chang stresses that the club is always open to new members. The club practices Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9-11 p.m. in the ROTC room and Saturdays 6-7 p.m. in the Athletic Center's Multi-Purpose Room. The first half of each session is devoted to teaching beginners and the second half is for advanced members.
The club is now looking forward to the 2004 NCTAC, which happens to be this April due to scheduling changes. And while the group was able to benefit from their unknown status in November, they realize that hundreds of teams will be looking to knock them off this spring. "It's going to be really challenging this year," Kramer said. Still, the team remains confident. "In April, we will be number one again," said Chang. "There's no question." For more information about the club, visit their website http://www.jhu.edu/~hot/.