Age but a number at Tae Kwon Do tournament

MARSHALL – Bare feet and colored belts were plentiful Saturday as hundreds of dobok-clad competitors showcased their sportsmanship and skills at the 23rd Annual Lee’s Tae Kwon Do tournament at Marshall High School.

“It’s really awesome,” 10-year-old Ashley Wall said about Tae Kwon Do. “I really enjoy it.”

Wall, who is from Marshall, has been active in the Korean martial art for about two years. Though she said she likes doing weapons, and especially the nunchuku, she was proud of how she performed throughout the forms competition Saturday.

“We were doing a turning side kick and then a running side kick,” she said. “I did it. It felt good.”

Participants of all ages took part in the tournament, including 4-year-old Cameron Crow, from Watertown, S.D.

“It’s really good,” Crow said about the Tae Kwon Do event. “I like running and kicking the board.”

Crow was among a group of 4- to 6-year-olds in the novice division. Keagan Joreen took home the first-place trophy in the stomp and run and stomp competition, while Jacob William was second.

“We have about 250 children and then another 30 or so adults participating (Saturday),” Master Kevin Knight said.

Knight is the owner and head instructor of Lee’s Tai Kwon Do.

Currently, the association has more than 35 gyms throughout North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Knight said.

The Marshall location has about 100 active students.

Knight noted that Tae Kwon Do is more than a sport, that people can learn priceless life skills through participation.

“It’s a life-changing event,” Knight said. “What we really emphasize is the respect, the leadership, the manners and the integrity aspect of it. It’s a martial art that mainly uses feet and hands. It’s not a weapons-based system. It’s all stand up action.”

Sparring involves kicking and punching to the body and the side of the head in a safe environment, Knight said, pointing out that classes and competition provide opportunities to teach the students about good sportsmanship, respect for one another, integrity, honesty and responsibility.

Tae Kwon Do students also learn about discipline and perseverance.

“We tell them, you’re not going to succeed at everything, but don’t give up,” Knight said. “Before every competition, I tell the children here in Marshall to just try their best. If something doesn’t work, you don’t hang your head and give up. Then you’ve failed. So you just keep trying.”

Eight-year-old Grace Ehlers is one of those enthusiastic competitors who has grown in the sport.

“It’s really good for confidence, too,” Knight said. “Two years ago, Grace was more shy. But now she’s so confident. So even if kids switch to sports or other activities later on, they still seem to take part in leadership things.”

After doing well in the forms competition, Ehlers was thrilled to be moving on to sparring.

“It’s awesome,” Ehlers said. “I’m the best at sparring.”

While Ehlers has found success, her dad, Charlie Ehlers, pointed out that it was the participation that was encouraged, more so than winning a competition.

The skill level at the tournament varied quite a bit depending on the length of time a competitor has been involved in Tae Kwon Do. Melrose student Gracie Schad, 9, joined the sport a month ago, but seemed to enjoy her first attempt at sparring.

Though she didn’t win her round against Jocelyn Saint Louis, of Marshall, both girls smiled as they bowed at each other at the conclusion.

“It was fun,” Saint Louis said.

Evan Esteblo, a fourth-grader from Marshall, has been in Tae Kwon Do for about a year, he said.

“I think it’s awesome,” Esteblo said after a sparring matchup against Kieya Siefert, of Melrose. “I like that we get to fight often. The fighting is in a good way, though.”

Esteblo acknowledged that the activity is also a good form of exercise.

“At open gym, I get so sweaty I have to take a shower when I get home,” he said.

Typically, the 4- and 5-year-olds do not spar because they’re a little young, Knight said. Competitors are also required to wear head gear, chest gear, hand pads, elbow pads, mouth guards, shin pads and instep pads, he said. Boys also wear a groin cup.

“The equipment is required for all levels,” Knight said. “It just keeps it very safe. this is a family event. We’re one big Tae Kwon Do family, so we want everyone to be safe, not get hurt and have fun.”

As the day went on, the degree of difficulty involved was noticeable.

“They go from forms, to weapons, board-breaking, sparring, and at the end, the black belts break cement blocks and spar,” Charlie Ehlers said.

While many spectators and participants consider the black belt demonstrations the highlight of the tournament, the success of the event also depends on the volunteerism of the black belts.

“We have some of the highest-ranking and best competitors in the country here,” Knight said. “They make the success of the tournament possible.”

Like other martial arts, Tae Kwon Do is a give-and-take system.

“As a color belt, you take,” Knight said. “You’re taking knowledge. You’re taking all this information from the black belts ahead of you. But when you become a black belt, you start giving back.”