Arts & Culture

Confidence, community and a better marriage through tae kwon do

“You have learned well, Paduan.”

“You have learned well, Paduan.”

Photo By David Robert

I’m a little nervous. I’m safe and I know it, but the jitters still linger. All around me, people are paired up, adjusting the straps on their protective gear and taking a last-minute stretch. The buzzer rings. I turn to face my opponent, my friend Lynsey, and bow toward her. She extends her arm, and we touch gloves. Now, all bets are off.

Lynsey starts off strong with a left jab and a right hook. I have no time to cover before she hits me in the head. Fortunately for me, I’m protected by headgear. Encouraged by my slowness, she tries the same combo again. This time I’m ready for her. I parry the jab to the side, and when the wide right hook comes across, I bob underneath her arm and bury a left hook into her ribs. She straightens up and smiles. “Good one!”

This is sparring night at West Coast Martial Arts, where my husband, Scott, and I have been in the tae-kwon-do program for almost two years. What started off as a means to become more physically active has turned into a way of life.

When we signed up, my husband and I agreed we needed to attend at least three classes a week in order to make it worthwhile. Now we go every day, sometimes twice a day.

And we’re not the only ones. Our particular branch of West Coast has a devout following. Parents come to enroll their children for martial-arts classes and get involved themselves. Women religiously attend the Kardio Kickboxing sessions, and groups of friends often sign up for the Ultimate Body Challenge. Some people have been training there for more than a decade. Day after day, people keep going back, hooked on something that much of the public is unaware of.

There are four West Coast Martial Arts schools in Reno. Each is operated separately by its own owners and instructors. Ours is owned by the husband-and-wife team of Tres and Kelly Weatherford. Between them, they have more than 30 years of martial-arts experience. Tres, the head instructor for the adult program, is a fourth-degree black belt. Kelly, the program director and an instructor, is a second-degree black belt.

“This is not just tae kwon do for us; it’s our business, our livelihood,” Tres tells me. “Being in the public requires us to be professionals. Just like doctors or lawyers, we have a service to provide, and we have to do that well in order for people to commit to our program.”

Currently, lots of people are committing themselves to West Coast. Since 1996, when Tres obtained ownership, the school has grown from 150 students to more than 600. Tres accredits the growth, in part, to the variety of the school’s programs.

“People come in for their introduction lesson and like what they see. They keep coming back year after year because, unlike the gym, they don’t burn out here. They keep evolving, learning new techniques, perfecting their skills and continuously working toward a higher level of martial arts.”

As we spar, Lynsey and I are trying to work toward that higher level. Dancing around each other, we look for weaknesses. I drop my hands to defend a kick instead of using a foot shield. That’s my Achilles’ heel. Lynsey knows this and exploits it as she comes at me with a low-high roundhouse.

The low kick is a fake, designed to get me to drop my hands to defend it, while the high roundhouse—the real kick—comes back and smacks me in the head. It works on me almost every time. You’d think I’d learn, but my focus is solely on Lynsey’s hands, which drop away from guarding her face when she goes in for a combo. I use this opportunity to land my left hook against the side of her headgear.

It’s hard to explain the appeal of tae kwon do. Sure, it’s a martial art—we get in shape, practice self-defense and learn how to set goals and achieve them—but there is more to it than that. We’ve changed somehow. The nights Scott and I spent watching TV are now filled with sidekicks, wheel kicks, crosses, hooks, elbows, defense moves and grappling techniques. Scott has lost more than 80 pounds this past year alone. I have watched my wonderful husband evolve from a quiet, shy, almost clumsy guy to a strong, confident person who can easily hold his own in a sparring match.

I took on a stranger transformation—I began to believe in myself. I asked Kelly if I could begin teaching Kardio Kickboxing and, to my surprise, she said yes. I applied to a competitive graduate program and was accepted. I submitted my first piece of writing, and it was published. While tae kwon do may not have been the reason that I succeeded at these things, it certainly gave me the confidence I needed to try them.

What Tres and Kelly have created at West Coast is far more than just a martial-arts school. They have created a community. A community of people where bruises are a source of pride, where limits are pushed, where people help each other become better and stronger, and where individual confidence grows in a single class. They are the kind of instructors who demand the best from us, all the while providing a comfortable atmosphere in which we can excel.

“People enjoy being here. They like the way they feel, they develop a good rapport with the instructors, they make friends, and they are a part of a team,” Tres explains. “Students leave here telling their family and friends. Parents leave here impressed by the positive changes in their children. Word gets around, and it brings in lots of good people who want to get involved.”

Right now, I am completely involved with holding my own against Lynsey. Hop-stepping to the side, I try to throw a Thai kick toward her thigh, but she is more than prepared. Her foot jab catches me in the stomach, halting my forward momentum and sending me staggering back. I straighten up as the buzzer signals the end of the match; I will have to get her back in another round. We bow toward each other.

“Nice job,” I tell her.

“You, too,” she replies. “I’ll see you again in few matches.”

We separate. We have 30 seconds to find a new sparring partner before the start of another round. I look around the room and make a beeline for my husband.