Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tales of an Almost-Black Belt*

In the beginning...

I began studying taekwondo at the Galway Road fire hall in 1998. I was 14 years old. The Galway Road fire hall was not a fancy (or even nice) dojang – it was a working fire hall. Our instructor, Dave, was a volunteer firefighter and was given permission to use the fire hall to start a martial arts club.

For people who have grown up in the city, much of what I just wrote may not make sense. In places like Fenelon Falls, where I grew up, there aren’t enough people or fires to keep a paid staff of firefighters, so people in the community take a course to become firefighters and first responders. They have a lot of responsibility, because often they will beat other first responders – paramedics and police – to any accident scene in the area by many minutes, and they have to really save peoples’ lives. However, they aren’t called upon too often. So, Dave saw an opportunity in the fire hall. He bought some mirrors, and a roll of industrial office carpeting, and made a dojang.

The first thing we had to do when we got to class was move the fire trucks. Once the fire trucks were moved out of the parking bays into the driveway outdoors, we would roll the industrial carpeting out over the cement floor. In January, that floor was cold. The whole dojang was usually freezing. Occasionally, in May or June, it would be nice enough to train with the huge fire hall doors open, with nothing outside but the buzzing of insects and the wind in the trees. The fire hall was also in the middle of nowhere.

Grading at the Galway Dojang - I'm at the very back,
3rd from right, in the top right photo
I trained with Dave at the Galway Road dojang until going to university. We trained 10 months per year and graded in June, and over the four years I worked with the club, I made it to brown belt. I was really passionate about taekwondo, and Dave was a very encouraging instructor. I was a part of the demo team, and we performed at the Fenelon Falls home show and a few other venues. I really wanted to get my black belt before going away to school, but there just wasn’t enough time.

When I got to university, full of excitement, I joined the taekwondo club on campus right away. This, sadly, was not a good experience. I felt out of place, intimidated, and like the other members ofthe club didn’t take me seriously. Yet, I surprise myself when I realize that I stuck with this club, training multiple times a week, for a full six months before deciding I wasn’t going to go back.

This experience was the beginning of some unfortunate luck with dojangs. I couldn’t find one that was friendly and welcoming, which allowed me to come in at the brown belt level that I had worked so hard for, and which I felt like I could really be a part of. I moved to many places – from London, ON, to Glasgow, Montreal, Geneva, and then finally to Toronto. Through all of those places, taekwondo was on my mind, but not a part of my life. Nine years slid past; I was 27 by the time I moved to Toronto, and I was deeply intimidated and nervous about joining new martial arts clubs.

And then… Suddenly, I was 30. 

I bring this up because it was the realization that I was starting the fourth decade of my life that made me think that it was about time I do something about getting that black belt. I have lived in the same apartment on Gerrard Street, mid-block between Woodbine and Main, since I moved to Toronto. I had been walking by Desantos Martial Arts for three whole years, giving it a sideways look, peering cautiously at the website, before finally sending an email saying I was curious about training here. During my very first class I regretted not coming in sooner. It was everything I was looking for in a dojang! It had been here the whole time!

It's love
Once I started training with Desantos, it wasn’t long before I convinced Drew to come along with me. It’s been so much fun to train with him and to watch him progress through the belts. He has almost caught up to me now, since he will grade for his brown and black-stripe belt in June. Yay, Drew! I’m also really pumped about all the great people I’ve gotten to know at Desantos, a few of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends.

Never one to make things too easy on myself, when I decided to pursue my black belt, I decided at the same time that I should probably go and do a PhD. 

In England. In order to try to keep on track with my black belt, and wanting very much to achieve it while training at the Desantos club, I asked Kwan Jan Nim about the possibility of counting training at a club in England toward my training time at Desantos, and I’m grateful that she agreed.

Paul, the TAGB instructor
at Birmingham
I found a club in Birmingham that was happy enough to have a visiting Canadian join their classes for a few months at a time, without having to get into their grading schedule. The club that I train with in England is the Birmingham location of the West Midlands branch of the Taekwondo Association of Great Britain (TAGB). The instructor, Paul, made me feel like a valuable part of their club from the get-go, and it has been fun to learn their curriculum. It has also been fun to share a few tips from Desantos with them. I’m looking forward to going back to the club this fall with my brand new black belt! Some of the people I train with there will have also gotten their black belts while I’ve been away, so there shall be high fives all around.

Kwan Jan Nim, Veronica Desantos, top right, and four of
her walkers - we made it to Niagara!!
The past eight months have been full of ups and downs, as I’m sure many black belt candidates will report. I’ve experienced ebbs and flows of enthusiasm about my training regime, new and recurrent injuries, and not a few major scheduling conflicts. Committing to black belt means making some choices that other people who haven't done the black belt training find odd, though the hardest for me has been managing the guilt I sometimes feel for putting my black belt training first. My friends and family have been nothing but supportive – I have had to grapple with my own sense of obligations.

Dave, #1 Mentor, with Natalie and me
at the end of our Niagara walk

Out of all of the challenges I’ve faced, the scheduling issues have been the most stressful aspect of committing myself to the black belt cycle – to which my good and dedicated mentor, Dave, can attest. It is hard some weeks to find the time to do all the training for black belt on top of other responsibilities, and Black Belt Spectacular itself posed a bit of a challenge for me – I have to fly to Scotland right after to present at a conference that starts the next day! Luckily for me, Kwan Jan Nim is the most understanding and flexible human on Earth. She told me that she thought I’d be able to make it to the Spectacular and to my flight, and she made it work out. It’s a bit self-centered to think that she did that just for me, but that’s how it feels; it feels like Kwanji takes care of us, and has taken care of me.

Black belt buddies!
If a future candidate asked me what the best part of the past year was, I would say that it’s being able to look back now and see how much I’ve improved. It’s been both difficult and greatly rewarding to see myself and the other candidates at Desantos work so hard and reach such great heights in a short and intense time period. I honestly didn’t know I had it in me, and I couldn’t have done it without Drew, Dave, and Kwan Jan Nim, my black-belt candidate peers, and all the great people at Desantos. 

Me, a black belt at 32,
surrounded by me,
a kid at 12. 

Though it has also been one of the most challenging, working toward my black belt in the supportive and encouraging Desantos club has without a doubt been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

*This text and most of the photos come from my black belt poster, created for Desantos Martial Arts as part of the requirements for achieving black belt


  1. THAT's the picture you chose of me? And I thought you liked me! :)