Sunday, November 28, 2004

What it took to make a taekwondo champion

* What it took to make a taekwondo champion (from The Taipei Times) _ Nov 06, 2004

Chen Shih-hsin won the country's first gold medal in taekwondo, but owes much of her success to her father and his gym
By Yu Sen-lun
Saturday, Nov 06, 2004,Page 16

Students at the The Lin-sen Taekwondo Gym go through their paces.

Ever since Taiwan's athletes won two gold medals and one silver medal at the Athens Olympics, taekwondo has become the highest profile sport in Taiwan, almost more popular than baseball.

For the Oct. 10 National Day events, taekwondo athletes were exhausted by a punishing schedule of performances. In the morning Chen Shih-hsin (陳詩欣) -- the nation's first gold medalist -- sang the national anthem. Then, groups of high school students performed, breaking boards and practising combat sequences on the square in front of the Presidential Office. In the evening, they were invited to attend the National Day reception party, performing taekwondo for guests and dignitaries.

In the past month Chen has appeared in at least four advertisements, as well as endorsing products such as Olympics memorial stamps, moon cakes and stumping for anti-piracy. She has been dressed up in a gaudy-looking kimono to promote the massage chair brand Osim. She wore a policewoman's uniform to encourage registration for volunteer firefighters.

According to local media, for each appearance as a public speaker, Chen is paid NT$100,000. For a TV ad, she charges NT$1 million.

The Lin-sen Taekwondo Gym (林森跆拳道館), or dojang (道場), which she trained in as a kid, has become a hot spot for young taekwondo learners. It's a 30 year-old gym opened and run by Chen's father, taekwondo coach Chen Wei-hsiung (陳偉雄). It's a rooftop house in a four-story apartment in Shihpai, on the outskirts of Taipei.

It's not a spacious gym and the decor is not fancy. On the wall of the apartment is a giant signboard saying "First Olympic Champion!" (奧運第一金). The sign is so big it can be spotted from the nearby MRT station.

"I learned taekwondo here since the age of five," Chen said, while having her make-up done, before rushing to another promotional event.

Inside the gym, dozens of young children are going through their weekly lessons. Most of them are elementary school students and just a few are in junior high school.

"It's true that in the last two months we have seen more parents sending their kids here to learn taekwondo. We have had an increase of students of at least 10 percent," Chen Wei-hsiung said.

One of the students is Lee Shin-hang (李欣航), a six year-old girl who started at the dojang two months ago. She just upgraded from white belt to yellow belt. "My mom drives me here, twice a week," she said. She said she likes taekwondo because it's fun.

Ten-year-old Lee Mu-fan (李慕藩) has been studying for a year now and is a red-black belt. "I like to spin and kick because it's easy," he said. "Also, learning taekwondo helps me with my computer game techniques.

"Chen Wei-hsiung is a strict coach. A 1m-long wooden rod symbolizes his severe training style. "Anyone misbehaving will be punished by this rod. Shih-hsin has suffered from it a lot, she was beaten on the hands," he said.

Obviously his strict methods work. In the past 30 years his dojang has played a crucial part in developing young taekwondo talents. "I teach students as they grow up. And when they are married and have kids, they send their kids to learn from me as well," Chen said.

Taekwondo originated in Korea and was introduced to Taiwan in 1966, as a combat skill for the military. Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), Chiang Kai-shek's son (蔣介石) was the minister of national defense at the time and chose taekwondo because he thought boxing lacked the traditional Chinese spirit. He did not choose karate because he was said to be anti-Japanese.

Taekwondo was first introduced to the marines, then the army and navy. Chen Wei-hsiung retired from the army in the 1970s and opened free classes for local communities. Soon, Chen gathered a group of friends and began to lobby elementary schools to start taekwondo classes.

In the 1980s, taekwondo as a sport began to take off. The Chinese Taipei Taekwondo Association was established in 1974 and in 10 years established taekwondo clubs in elementary schools throughout the country. Besides the schools, more than 600 private taekwondo gyms were set up and registered by the association.

"A lot of the top taekwondo athletes you see now on TV were trained during the 1980s," Chen said.

At that time, when most elementary students had to wear uniforms to school, those who did taekwondo did not have to. "Every day, around three in the afternoon, after they had finished their taekwondo classes, students would show off their tunics, running around the campus, enjoying envious looks from the other kids," Chen said.

According to Chen, taekwondo has taken off in Taiwan for two main reasons. Firstly, because it is the foundation of military training. Secondly, due to the Chinese Taipei Taekwondo Association's hard work promoting the sports. "We are lucky that it is a large yet very united family. From the very beginning we knew that we had only one goal, which was to win gold medals in international games," he said. "And now we have made it.

"So who will be the country's next gold-medal winner? Chen pointed to a skinny little 10-year-old boy with a black belt, named Pan Yi-wei (潘逸瑋), who started learning the martial art at the age of three. "I like taekwondo because it's fun and looks cool." he said. "My idols are Jet Li, Bruce Lee and Chen Shih-hsin. I hope to be like them in the future.

"For your information :
Learning Taekwondo
Average charge: NT$4,000 for eight weeks, once a week, each time two hours
Taekwondo clubs: visit Chinese Taipei Taekwondo Association Web site for recommended clubs.