Apolo Ladra compares acquiring a black belt in the martial arts to graduating from college.
This philosophy could make his prized pupil, Michael Reid, the class valedictorian.
Reid, 15, of Severna Park has accumulated nearly 200 trophies since his first competition three years ago.
A second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, he's ranked No. 2 nationally in the 15-17 divisionand aspires one day to qualify for the Olympic team.
And to thinkhe didn't even like the sport at first sampling, when two visits to the Severna Park YMCA at age 6 left him bored.
"I just wasn't old enough, and I didn't really enjoy it," he says. "But as I matured a little, I gave it another try and I liked it."
He met Ladra three years later while testing for his green belt in Laurel. And his life, not to mention his previously flawed technique, never would be the same.
"When he was testing, I knew the kid had the potential to be good if he stuck with it, and he did," said Ladra, 25, a fourth-degreeblack belt who works with Reid at least three times a week as masterinstructor of Apolo's East Coast Tae Kwon Do in Glen Burnie.
"He kept in touch with me after that. Whenever he was testing, he would contact me and I gave him advice. And he always came back for more.
"He sets his mind to something, and he goes for it. He takes action,which a lot of kids don't do. They're afraid of failure."
Reid seldom fails, whether on the mat or in his high school classrooms.
"Now, I use Mike as a role model. He's an honor student (at Severna Park High) and very disciplined," Ladra said.
The latter was apparent during a Wednesday night visit to Ladra's studio on Crain Highway. Each sentence from Reid ends with the word "sir," and every karate movement is crisp and precise.
Reid and Ladra rehearsed a routine they'll perform as part of a martial arts demonstration at this weekend's World Karate Association Championship Tournament.
Set to the ballad "Wind Beneath My Wings," the pair performed martial arts musicalforms before a captivated audience of students and parents.
Later, Michael rejoined a group of his classmates who also will be involved in the Ocean City tournament. Each could earn a position on the U.S. karate team that will travel to Leningrad in October for another international competition.
Ladra, who was born in the Philippines and moved to this country 17 years ago, already has been invited to theSoviet Union to take part in seminars and demonstrations.
Reid would like the opportunity to accompany his coach, though he admits he has participated in so many national tournaments, "it's become prettyroutine."
His first taste of competition came at "The Battle of Atlanta" in 1988, where he took second place in forms -- imaginary fight sequences where judges award points for stance, kicks, etc.
Earlier this month, the 5-foot-1, 105-pound Reid finished second in forms and fourth in weapons at the Capital Classics in Washington.
Reid said his most impressive showing came three years ago in
the U.S. Open in Florida -- "the biggest of the 12 national tournaments" -- where he was first in forms.
But Ladra holds fonder memories of another competition, the Delmarva Open in Rehoboth Beach in 1988, whereReid placed first in forms, weapons and sparring. The tournament served as a fund-raiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Reiddonated his prize earnings of $200 to the foundation.
"That tournament had the biggest impact on his martial arts career, and on him,"Ladra said. "With his parents' support and the support he gets here,he can go as far as he wants in life."
Other students of Ladra's school who will be going to Ocean City this weekend are his two brothers, Bobby, 28, and Emil, 21, of Glen Burnie; Michael McClean, 20, ofPasadena; Vince Barranco, 19, of Glen Burnie; Karin Hall, 19, of Pasadena; Kim Brown, 18, of Baltimore; Shannon Hill, 13, of Baltimore; Lance Guillermo, 10, of Glen Burnie; Billy Hillmuth, 9, of Burtonsville; Maurice Bradford, 9, of Baltimore; and Nick Coronel, 7, of Laurel.
All are black belts, except Barranco and McClean (both brown) andCoronel (purple).