Father, son earn martial art honors Tae kwon do: A Joppatowne boy, 11, and his parent celebrate the unusual event of receiving their black belts together.

July 28, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

When Bradley Helm Jr., 11, bowed to accept the black cotton belt emblematic of the top rank of tae kwon do, the ancient Korean martial art, Bradley Helm Sr. stood tall and proud.

Moments later, it was young Brad's turn as his father, 42, still sweating from the grueling 3 1/2 -hour written and physical test, received his black belt, too.

The ceremony at a tae kwon do school in Carney this month offered a rare sight: a father and son earning the honor together.

"This is our time together, when my dad and I can talk together and work out," Brad said of the six years they had traveled to classes and matches several times a week, progressing one step at a time through the colored belts, from beginner's white to expert's black.

For the Fallston Middle School seventh-grader -- top student, violinist, class officer and peer mediator -- it could be just the beginning of a distinguished tae kwon do career, according to one of the three masters of the art who judged 17 male and female candidates.

"He was the most outstanding of the candidates," said Grand Master Se Yong Chang, 45.

The demanding test has several parts, including a written essay on the meaning of achieving black-belt rank. Candidates spar, using hand and foot techniques; break boards with hands and feet; perform defensive maneuvers and demonstrate forms, the choreographed moves of the 2,000-year-old art.

It is unusual, but not unprecedented in the United States, for a child so young to earn the rank.

Students in Korea progress faster because they take six classes week, while American schools hold two or three sessions, said Chang. He earned his first-degree black belt at 7 in Korea and is now a seventh-degree; his wife and two children also are black belts.

Brad talks guardedly about his achievement, not only from modesty but also, he said, to preserve its value as an "ace-in-the-hole."

"You have the element of surprise if you're attacked," he said. "I only told my best friend about it."

Brad is defined by more than his sport, said Marcia Boccia, assistant principal at Fallston Middle School. He already has mature leadership qualities and an ability to deal with peers and adults "exactly the same way," Boccia said. "He is a role model for his own peers. He is very respectful and kind to other individuals."

Brad's kindness showed at a recent practice at the Jarrettsville Tae Kwon Do School, which meets twice a week at North Bend Elementary School. As the 25-member class of men, women, girls and boys, went through drills, the youngest student, Kevin Emm, 5, missed a kick and fell. Brad picked up the younger boy and demonstrated the proper technique.

Minutes later, he was showing a 43-year-old man how to improve his kicking ability.

Although some adults might resent instruction from a boy a quarter their age, Larry McGraw of Fallston -- whose son, Brian, 8, is also in the class -- said he welcomed Brad's help because he respects his accomplishment. "Hopefully we'll achieve the same honor some day," McGraw said.

Attrition is very high; no more than one or two people out of 10 who start maintain the commitment to earn a black belt, Chang said.

Belts -- wrapped twice around the waist over the do buk, the white pajamalike uniform -- are successively white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red, dan-bo (red and black) and black. Tae kwon do has nine black-belt degrees, with the highest ranks earned mostly by masters in Korea.

Brad said he plans to work toward advanced degrees and anticipates the 2000 Olympic Games. Tae kwon do -- an exhibition event in 1988, 1992 and this year -- will be a medal sport for the first time, and he hopes to try out for the U.S. team.

"If he keeps training and working, he could do it. Why not?" said Chang, president of the Maryland State Tae Kwon Do Association.

Brad's chances could be better in the 2004 games, however, said Master Chang Hun Yi, 30, a fifth-degree black belt who was also on the judging panel. "He stood out among the candidates, and I think he's going to be a great master. He has the attitude, and attitude is much of tae kwon do."

However, Yi said, Brad will be only 15 at the next games "and it would be difficult for him to compete, even possibly dangerous." Olympic-level tae kwon do competitors are usually 18 and older, he said.

But in eight years, Brad could be ready, Yi said.

The Maryland association is an affiliate of the World Tae Kwon Do Federation, with headquarters in Korea, which means that its awards of rank are recognized internationally and by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Tae kwon do is the fastest-growing martial art sport in the country, Chang said. "There were 20 schools when I became president 3 1/2 years ago; now there are more than 100 [in Maryland.]"

Tae kwon do classes are family oriented and students emphasize that their progress is self-competition, not against others. The Jarrettsville Club numbers almost any combination of relatives, the largest among them a couple with their two daughters.

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