Learning to breathe

Sean Baxter with sword

“Just relax”, I told myself. That’s easier said than done for a teenager. My turn wasn’t up yet; I was seated on the floor but I was nervous; watching the others only added to the tension I was already feeling. “You can do this”, the hand on my shoulder seemed to say. Looking up, I saw in my instructor’s face a relaxed easiness that reminded me I had prepared for this well enough. Moments later, my name was called and I jumped up and moved to the starting position. All thoughts of whether I was ready or not were unexpectedly erased, and were swiftly replaced with listening for the next command.
“Begin!” barked the official and my body began to move almost of its own accord. It felt like each move took forever but I concentrated on my breathing and getting through this. Holding the last move, I heard the center judge yell “Bah-Ro!” and I returned to the ready position. “Judges, score!” and the three judges presented their assessments of my performance to the recording official.
And, what felt like only a moment later, it was done. I was seated once again with my fellow white belts. Turning and looking about, I caught the eye of my instructor again who had been watching. He nodded. Turning back, the smile on my face must have been a mile wide because several of the other seated competitors were looking right at me. Some with a grin, one or two others with that same pre-performance nervousness I must’ve had on my face only moments ago.
That was the winter of 1984 and my first tournament.
Years earlier, I was living on a farm in a small community in New York State, just south-west of Buffalo.
We had left the suburbs of Los Angeles when I was nine years old. Leaving my oldest brother behind to finish college, my family drove across the country in a white economy van with no A/C and a U-Haul truck containing all our belongings. Stopping only to camp the night or for much needed breaks, it took us seven days to reach our destination in New York.
New Jersey wasn’t much different. My parents had moved there during my sophomore year of high school, leaving my brother and me to tend to the animals until I finished school. I left the cold winters of New York behind and traded them for the humid summers of New Jersey. It was the early 80’s and Black Belt Theater played classic Kung Fu (English dubbed) movies every Saturday morning. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) still had yet to play in theaters but my friends and I were already ninjas. Dressing up in dark or camouflage clothing, jumping over fences, climbing walls in narrow alleys, and sneaking about in the dark, my friends and I thought ourselves like those warriors we saw on TV. Using machetes, wooden clothes rod, and handmade swords we practiced fighting in the backyard. I was the third son, so as long as I didn’t break or chop anything off, my parents didn’t seem to take much notice of our activities.
The summer of 1984 brought us The Karate Kid. We were so primed. It was as if this movie was made just for us. We already had “the moves”. All we needed was a real instructor.
“Cha ryuht, kyung nae” came the command and we followed along what Master Wade was doing, bowing awkwardly as we were just white belts and this was our first class. “Choon-Bi” came next and we moved to the ready stance, mimicking what we saw. We were finally learning real moves from a real instructor! We couldn’t get enough of it. Rain or shine, we rode our bikes to the school for every class. The school, located not far from home, was a converted roller rink with wooden floors and few windows. Most of it was configured as Wade’s Gym with weight training equipment for the gym rats and body builders. Master Wade lived in an apartment over the office. Building code enforcement was a bit lax back then. The dojo was at the far end of the roller rink with a makeshift particle board divider with mirrors on both sides. In the winter, the floors were freezing and in the summer, the heat was stifling. It didn’t matter to us. For us it was home. This is where we would become “real” martial artists.

A year into my training, needing a way to pay for college, I enlisted in the Army Reserve and shipped out to the Fort Benning Infantry School. Side note: Georgia in the heat of summer is no picnic. The drill sergeants were tough as nails and had no qualms about working us into the dirt. Our barracks were the old Gomer Pyle 1940’s style; a long, two story building with two rows of bunk beds and no A/C. Straight out of the movie Full Metal Jacket.
Up way before dawn, standing in formation, we waited for the drill instructors to march us to a dirt field for PT. An hour or so later we finished up physical training with a five mile run and back to the barracks. I can’t thank Master Wade enough for preparing me for the physical rigors of boot camp.
That fall, I returned to martial arts training and started college. By then, I had a car. So if it rained, I didn’t have to show up to class soaking wet anymore.
Training at Master Wade’s school continued, learning new patterns, new techniques, and endless rounds of sparring. At that time, sparring gear was a bit of novelty and hadn’t made its way throughout the martial arts industry. Headgear was none existent. Coincidentally, this had the side benefit of teaching you to block well.Martial Arts Training Center
Change is good; though sometimes painful. Sometime later in 1988, I said goodbye to my friends and family in New Jersey and found myself in Charlotte NC. Needing a place to train again, I enrolled at Mr. Strickland’s Taekwondo Plus.
Once again, I was hooked. I went to every tournament, camp, seminar, cookout, and event Mr. Strickland offered. We took a 13 hour bus ride to Long Branch, NJ for a tournament in the middle of a mall. We rode an old school bus to Pensacola, FL for a tournament near the beach. One time, we went to a winter camp in Ashville NC where it had snowed the night before. Every cabin had about six students in it and the only heat was an electric heater in each cabin. It was very cold that night so everyone had their heaters turned up high. Sometime that night, the breaker for our cabin tripped. No lights, no heat, and no alarm clock.
Needless to say, we slept through the first workout that following morning. In recompense, we performed extra exercises at every workout as was the custom at the time.
There are more stories told of past Winter Camps than I can remember. Stories of the workouts, the meals, the games, of rock climbing, and the evenings’ activities. Legend has it there were two teenagers, their fondness for each other, their lateness to a workout, and their subsequent punishment that involved carrying a small bolder to every workout and meal. But that legend has faded into myth.
One simple question was to later change the course of my life forever.
The summer of 1995 saw me doing what I had done for years, teaching class at Mr. Strickland’s school. Instructing just seemed so right to me. I would take material that I had learned and try to explain it in such a manner that a student could understand it. The essence of this was in my blood. I tried my hardest and performed better whenever I was asked to demonstrate and lead others. It drove me to better myself in so many ways. Ever since I was asked to warm-up a class at Master Wade’s, or to lead my squad as a cadet officer in ROTC at college, I was drawn to leadership, to try to excel when others depended on it. It may have been with that in mind when Mr. Strickland asked if I wanted to run a school in Concord, NC. It was such a simple question and had I been somewhere else that evening when he thought to ask one of his many instructors, this story would be very different; written by someone else. It’s funny how life can change dramatically in such a small moment.
So began the journey that would put me in a place to affect so many lives. The fall of 2014 marked my 30th year in martial arts. Nearly 20 of those years were spent as owner and operator of Concord Taekwondo America. It has been a truly grand experience for me and one that has enriched my life for decades. Someone once said, “Do not ask for an easier life, ask for the strength to endure the one you have.” It has been a journey fraught with many challenges; more so than anything else I’ve done in life. It has created some of my best experiences, it has shown me the best in people, and it has given me a quite a few people I now call friends.
Over the course of 20 years, I have had the honor and privilege of instructing over 2,000 students. Over 250 have achieved Black Belt. Many of those have had the fortitude to achieve high rank in Taekwondo America. Some became instructors; and a small few went on to make teaching Taekwondo their livelihood. It has been a life I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Posted in Attitude.