Taekwondo officially means “the way of the foot and fist,” which you can’t deny is pretty cool. What’s even cooler is that for the past eight years, Penn State’s own Club Taekwondo team has grown from a small, disorganized group of friends into a club with 35 active members.
Most people have probably heard of taekwondo at some point, but what exactly is it? Simply put, it’s a Korean martial art that’s characterized by its emphasis on the execution of clean-cut kicks to one’s opponent. The sport itself has been around for more than 70 years now. It originally developed as a mix of karate and Korean martial arts in the 1940s and ’50s.
Today, Taekwondo is the most practiced martial art in the world. With more than 70 million competitors in 190 countries, Taekwondo has flourished as a sport in recent decades. In the 2000 Olympic Games, the sport officially became an Olympic event — in 2008, Penn State Club Taekwondo’s very own coach Angel Martinez competed in the Olympic Games held in Bejing.
“We have people that come in from all different skill levels, so it’s great having someone like Angel, someone with that Olympic experience who knows what it takes [to]help all of us work toward that level of expertise,” said club president Nick DeCarlo.
DeCarlo is a senior at Penn State and has been training with the club since his freshman year. When he initially joined the organization, he had never even tried the sport before. He played hockey and soccer in high school, so joining a martial arts team was definitely a leap out of his comfort zone. However, becoming a member of Club Taekwondo was a decision he’ll be forever grateful he made.
“This club has really become my group here. I can’t imagine not being a part of it,” DeCarlo said. “A lot of us call it our Penn State family too. It’s great how close we are.”
The club competes in different states on a regular basis. It’s affiliated with the East Coast Taekwondo Conference (ECTC) and competes with schools such as UPenn, Brown, Princeton, Cornell, and Pitt. In the fall and early spring, the competitions are mostly tournaments hosted by various schools. The tournaments facilitate a close-knit team environment — competitors work together with other members from their school to get the best combined overall score, so everyone has a role in the team’s success.
Each move completed earns the competitor a certain number of points — a kick or punch to the body is one point and a kick to the head is three. Each match between two individual opponents is known as a sparring match. There are three rounds each lasting two minutes — the competitor with the highest number of points at the end wins.
Arguably the most important competition the club participates in each year is the National Collegiate Taekwondo Championships. Unlike the ECTC tournaments, Nationals focuses a lot more on independent competition instead of team sparring. Nationals will take place this April at The University of California–San Diego.
For DeCarlo, regular ECTC competitions are a lot more fun than national tournaments since everyone has a chance to compete. “It’s really cool seeing them motivate each other on that smaller team level,” he said. “I have a lot of people that will come up to me at practices and say ‘Oh, my teammate’s not here,’ so it’s cool to see that there’s such a team identity even though people usually think of this as an individual sport.”
Club Taekwondo even holds one combined practice for the entire group. While competitors of different skill levels will each focus on different techniques, they all practice in the same room at the same time. Members also enjoy hanging out outside of practice and doing various activities together, such as hiking Mount Nittany and playing laser tag — they’re a close-knit group of martial arts lovers who truly love each other as much as they love the sport.
For members of Club Taekwondo, the sport is really just about doing what they love with the people they love. You can even check out the group at THON this year where it’ll be performing on its own for the first time during a Taekwondo demonstration.