Taekwondo: Building on Strength

Athletes continue to prepare for the next Summer Olympic Games.
Athletes continue to prepare for the next Summer Olympic Games.

Taekwondo is about much more than merely fighting skills and martial arts techniques. It’s systematic and scientific, engaging the mind as well as the body.

The name of the sport itself hints at its depth: “Tae” means “foot,” “leg” or “to step on”; “Kwon” means “fist” or “fight” and “Do” means “way” or “discipline.”

The Korean-born sport was initially developed in the 1940s—and was heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts and karate—and it made its way to the United States just a decade later. The sport grew in popularity over the next few decades, and in 1988 it made its debut as a demonstration Olympic sport at the 1988 Seoul Games. It was officially introduced as a medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Games and is one of only two Asian martial arts including on the Olympic program.

“One reason taekwondo is so popular is because it involves discipline,” said USA Taekwondo Marketing & Communications Manager Jose Villalpando. “In addition to discipline, taekwondo teaches life lessons and having respect for others. It’s all about enhancing the spirit through body and mind.”

Currently, more than 15,000 people across the United States are participating in the sport through USA Taekwondo, the national governing body of taekwondo. That number continues to grow, not only with all age groups but also with males and females. The number of females participating in sport has dramatically increased.

“When it comes to participation, there’s not a big gap between males and females,” Villalpando said. “Female participation has grown. A lot of our top athletes are females, and that’s one of the many great things about the sport. The demographic is huge. There are so many people that partake. It’s really cool how so many people love this sport.”

The Olympic Games always spurs more interest in the sport, and to be prepared to dominate the Olympic Games when it returns to America in Los Angeles in 2028, USA Taekwondo has recently launched a new program specifically designed to identify, develop and support future Olympians. The USA Taekwondo Athlete Academy began in 2019, and it’s carried out in three phases, essentially starting with the organization traveling to different regions of the country and hosting camps where athletes can attend to showcase their skills. Athletes that show potential are then invited by USA Taekwondo coaches to attend exclusive and more intense training camps. The camps are hosted four times a year, allowing the athletes to train with USA Taekwondo coaches and even resident athletes.

Taekwondo is as much about discipline as athletic ability.
Taekwondo is as much about discipline as athletic ability.

“This program has helped us identify a lot of great athletes, Villalpando added. “One of our current residents was actually selected through this program.”

Also aimed at building its top talent is the organization’s new Resident Program. Also started in 2019, the Resident Program has created the opportunity for athletes to move to Colorado Springs, Colorado—the organization’s headquarters—and train full-time in preparation for international events. Helping this happen is the organization’s new national headquarters, which houses a training facility.

“The sport has never had that before,” Villalpando said. “This helps our athletes in that they have a dedicated venue in which to compete, participate, train, and learn, and they can all do so together, which will help team unity.”

While much of the organization’s focus is sparring, which is the sport’s discipline included in the Olympic program, the organization is also making great strides in furthering the sport’s other discipline: Poomsae. Poomsae is more of a choreographed martial art that often includes movements with music, and the organization is putting more focus on it in hopes to continue growing it as well. Now, for the first time ever, Poomsae will have its own ranking system, which will be part of the selection process for selecting the discipline’s national team.

“We’ve also created a pathway for Poomsae athletes, which mimics the pathway for sparring athletes,” Villalpando added. “Furthermore, in 2021, we are planning to build a resident program for Poomsae. The plan is to host academies and camps at the facility so that Poomsae athletes can train here. Growing this side of the sport has been a goal of ours for a while, and we’re excited to be putting plans in place to make that happen soon.”

Another first for the organization—which is also aimed at growing participation within the sport—is that nonmembers will be allowed to participate in USA Taekwondo events for the first time. This allows those interested in the sport but not quite sure if they are ready to commit an opportunity to compete at an actual event before joining. And now, in addition to the organization’s major events such as the U.S. Open and National Championships, there’s a new event for athletes: The Grand Slam Series. Officially started last year, the Grand Slam Series is a tournament that invites the top 32 athletes per division to compete.

“With the leadership, we have in place, our main focus is all about growing the sport of taekwondo and continuing to bring a positive view to the sport,” Villalpando said. “We feel with many of these new changes it’s giving the next generation athletes to look up to, which is incredibly important. We feel taekwondo is only going to continue to grow.”