When I started training in early 2007, I had this little white introductory uniform with “ATA Cranberry, PA” on it and a little white belt tied around my waist. I joined in with the Karate Kid program and loved every minute of it. White belt turned to orange, yellow, and then finally camouflage. At camo belt, my parent purchased me a set of sparring safety gear so I could engage in contact sparring. I joined the leadership program and got a spiffy new heavy duty uniform with my name on the back. Green belt followed, and purple belt came two months later. I participated in my first tournament as a purple belt. I didn’t do well, but I fell in love with the competitive nature. A few weeks after that tournament, more than a year since I started training, I was faced with a dilemma. I couldn’t play five sports at once. Taekwondo ended up being the sport that was cut. In all my time training there, I never did manage to get a “merit award” for doing something well in class, but my brother was showered with them. It took me a while to get over that, but in the end, I gained more from taekwondo than he ever did. I will be forever thankful for the training and life skills I learned from then- Master and Master Shipton, now Senior Master and Master Shipton, Mr. Paget, Mr. Korsak, Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Glatz.
A few years later, my mom was cleaning the attic when she threw away my sparring gear, gear bag, uniform, belts, and all my weapons. It was the end of an era. Or was it?
On December 23rd, 2013, exactly 2 years ago today, I vowed in the presence of my mother, and my instructors, Mr. and Mrs. Opsitos to fully commit myself to taekwondo, as it is not the most inexpensive sport around. There were no mats, mirrors, or carpeting, but something just clicked. I returned to taekwondo in January 2014, as the first student in the brand new school. I was struggling with the diagnosis of multiple devastating chronic illnesses that took away my ability to walk and run. It went from being a hobby to a passion very quickly. With the help of some very dedicated instructors who worked with me through every admission, obstacle, and new mystery medical diagnosis, we worked through all the challenges slowly but surely. As I climbed the ranks, I started helping out with the classes for the younger students, and I feel in love with it. One class a week quickly became three classes a week and finally, just whenever I happened to be at the school.
I rediscovered my love of competing again and this time, I found myself finishing with four 1st place medals.
In the days leading up to my black belt test, I found myself laying in the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh with PICC lines and epidural catheters running from my spinal column as I faced my toughest and most unsuccessful hospital admission yet. In fear of losing everything, I had worked so hard for, I called the only person that I knew could comfort me and remind me that everything was going to be okay, Mr. Opsitos. I got the reassurance I needed and so I continued my charge up the mountain. Well, I still ended up in a wheelchair full time with badly contracted feet, but the story was far from over.
I had five days to reconfigure my forms, weapons, sparring, and board breaks for the black belt test. Everything that I had spent the last eight months working on had to be done from a wheelchair. I’ll be darn; we did it! We didn’t just do it, but I could not have been happier with the way the testing turned out. There were very few dry eyes in the house that night.
After testing, I had the opportunity to speak with Master Shipton, who is a huge role model to me, about some words that she said earlier that evening. She spoke of how taekwondo is always a constant even if we stray off to do other things. This message really spoke to me, because if it weren’t for the Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and the rest of the illnesses, I probably wouldn’t have had the blessing of coming back to taekwondo.
I guess this proves that every black belt didn’t know how to do a reverse punch, a sidekick, or a front kick at some point. As months turned to years, the techniques got harder, it became more physically demanding. But I loved it and I fought through every jammed finger, broken toe, busted knuckle, broken leg, bruised shin and every sprained joint. No one tells you that the mountain is going to be the steepest at the top. I know that I was born to lead. I was born to compete, and I will take help from anyone who is willing to help me reach my goals. My goal is to be a State Champion, qualify for Districts and reach even higher and I will do what I have to to achieve this objective. I want to be great. A great leader, competitor, but mostly importantly, a great person. I want to be able to look at taekwondo someday and be able to say “Yes, I am good at it.”
I don’t want the other students, parents, and the students I assist with to see me as a victim. I want to be the one that rises above the adversity. That student my instructors, past and current can proudly say, “Yes, she is/was one of my students!” I don’t know where this mystery lifelong illness journey will take me, but I will be the one driving the boat.
I no longer feel like just another student at Wexford ATA. I feel like a part of the family and even though I am not on “staff,” my goal is to be seen as just another one of the instructors one day. Taekwondo isn’t just a sport for me anymore. It is a lifestyle, and that black belt is always tied around my waist. Yes/No sir/ma’am is not just for the dojahng. It should be applied in the real world. It is one thing to say all this, but I have to continue showing the world that circumstances will not get me down, and the life skills learned in the dojahng go far beyond the school walls.