On an unseasonably warm Friday evening in March, Jae Young Kim, owner of in Elmhurst, prepares to teach a small class. All the students know each other quite well.
In their white robes and pants, Jimmy, Ryan, Austin, Mason and Ashley Kosowski, from Oak Brook, do quick sprints around the room and several stretches while counting in Korean. Jimmy and Ryan are second-degree black belts, Austin and Mason are first-degree black belts, and Ashley is a yellow belt, who started this year.
The children, ages 3 to 12, are focused as they aim their kicks and punches into Kim, who holds a padded target. As Kim gives them tips, the children respond with either “Yes sir” or “No sir” as they wait in line taking turns. To Kim, taekwondo is not just about perfecting hand and foot techniques; it’s about teaching students confidence and respect for themselves and others.
Kim, a seventh-degree dan black belt, bought the school from Sang Un Cha, the former owner of Tiger’s Taekwondo. Kim's grand opening was in March.
The Korean-born Kim, 48, defines taekwondo as a Korean self-defense martial art that uses punches and kicks, but also adds to the inner development of students by emphasizing breathing and creating energy. Students test and advance through a 10-belt ranking system.
“With taekwondo, the outside is soft but the inside is stronger,” Kim said. “We have to make students relax the body. When you have stress, the stress is gone. “
Taekwondo also is a family affair. Kim’s two teenage daughters are fourth-degree dan black belts and champions. His wife, though not a student of this marital art, is a former 400-meter runner who was a Pan Am Games champion in 1986.
Kim began taking taekwondo at age 5, during a time when he was very ill. Kim’s grandfather introduced him to the art to help him become physically stronger. It worked, and he became serious about practicing. By age 8, he earned his first black belt, and a taekwondo scout selected him to be on a special team.
During high school and college, he continued his study of taekwondo, and after college, he became a member of a professional team. Kim built his resume by earning gold medals in the World Taekwondo Championships in 1983 and in the Korean National Sports Festival from 1987 to 1990. As an Olympics coach, he trained many students, and one of them—an American from Michigan—became a 1988 Seoul Olympics bronze medalist.
Kim's prowess led to his being hired by the Korean government as a prison bodyguard, but after his mother’s pleading for him to find a new job, Kim moved to the United States in 1993. His first destination was Michigan to see his former Olympics student who had his own martial arts school. He hired Kim as a teacher, and the following year, Kim bought his school. That business move gave Kim an opportunity to expand his martial arts school to the Michigan towns of Saint Clair, Ann Arbor, Bloomfield Hill, Troy and Lansing.
He wanted to expand into a larger area, like Chicago, and his opportunity came thanks to a colleague who told him Cha wanted to retire and sell his Elmhurst school. The rest is history.
“The first time I opened my school, I never really thought of having franchises,” Kim says. “I’m really happy teaching (taekwondo), and life, because it helps (young students).
Kim says there are differences between the Korean and American public school system. American public schools don't teach manners, attitude and respect the way schools in Korea do, he said.
But taekwondo schools go beyond the physical techniques and teach those concepts, as well as concentration and leadership.
"Those things help the kids to achieve better harmony and have respect," he said. "Taekwondo schools in the United States can fill that gap.”
Many parents, such as Elizabeth Kosowski, like Kim’s teaching style.
“He has a well-disciplined class and keeps good control over it,” she said. “He’s so positive in the way he teaches them. They enjoy him. He’s kind to the kids. He seems genuinely concerned for the kids and cares about them improving their skills.”
Her two oldest children, Jimmy and Ryan, took an interest in taekwondo eight years ago and practiced at Cha’s school. Her other children followed suit. She sees her children studying martial arts for a long time.
Besides learning respect and honor, Elizabeth says the children—especially those who are higher ranked—learn leadership skills. For example, her older children lead in warm-ups and demonstrate techniques to the lower-ranked students.
Jimmy enjoys working out with his siblings, who are built-in partners for him. He tries to go three times a week to practice. He said it took him about three to four years to earn his first black belt, and he sees himself going further.
“Taekwondo is a lot of fun for me, and I just want to get better,” he said.
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