Champ gets her kicks

Athlete: An Abingdon teen-ager sets her sights on the Olympics after winning a junior title in tae kwon do.

December 28, 2003|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ponytailed Youngshin Jennifer Chang packs a back kick that would make Charlie's Angels slink away in shame.

It's a kick that helped Chang snag the gold in the 2003 Junior Pan American Tae Kwon Do Games last month -- a sweet ending to the Edgewood High School senior's junior competition career.

It's her signature kick -- a spin and backward kick to a challenger's face -- that might land her a spot on the 2008 United States Olympic tae kwon do team. Chang, 17, is being scouted to train on the national team that feeds into the Olympics.

"She's one of the top junior athletes. She definitely has potential," said David Martin, spokesman for the United States Tae Kwon Do Union, the national governing body for tae kwon do, and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Tae kwon do is a Korean martial art characterized by its kicks and spins. It was adopted as a full Olympic sport for the 2000 Sydney Games.

However talented she might be, the Abingdon girl tries to be an average teen-ager.

Chang wears monkey-faced socks under her white practice dobok, or uniform, and her radio blares rhythm and blues. She wears glittery lip gloss. On occasion, she hangs out at White Marsh Mall and catches the latest thriller with her girlfriends.

But tae kwon do is in Chang's blood. Her father, Se Yong Chang, 51, began practicing at age 8. The internationally renowned grand master instructor and eighth-degree black belt has operated schools in South Korea and the United States, has taught tae kwon do to soldiers and has led the state's tae kwon do association.

In 1987, he opened the U.S. Tae Kwon Do Academy in Baltimore, where Chang practices the martial art.

"My dad's an excellent teacher who knows everything," she said. "Without him, I'd never have gotten this far."

Chang's brother, Yong Seong, 22, is an international champion and a master instructor. He coaches Chang along with Joseph Pirczhalski III, who has studied under her father for 17 years. Even Chang's mother, Moon Ja, 51, has practiced tae kwon do.

Chang was 5 when she first stepped onto a mat with her father. By 8, she earned her black belt. Nearly every year since 1993, she has competed in 10 to 20 local, national and international competitions.

In most of them, she captured first place and she has rarely placed out of the top three. She brought home nothing less than gold medals from the last three Junior Olympic National Championships she competed in.

Last year, she won a silver medal in sparring at the Fourth World Junior Tae Kwon Do Championships in Crete. It was the first time she qualified for the competition.

Not only did Chang win a gold medal in her weight division at last month's Pan American tournament in Brazil, she also won the Most Valuable Player award.

"She has talent, a gift," her brother said.

Chang practices three hours a day, five days a week -- more during competition season. At times, she helps her father by teaching classes at his Baltimore tae kwon do school or by filing his paperwork.

All the while, she stays on the honor roll at school. She paints and plays piano. Chang, an American citizen born on a U.S. Army base in Seoul, speaks English, Korean and Spanish.

"I'm no supergirl," she said.

A 5-foot-7-inch powerhouse, Chang stands resolute on the mat to face her opponent. While most of her sparring partners bob and weave in front of her, Chang stands low to the ground.

She lets her challenger come at her, finds the weak points, then slams her with the ax -- or back-kick -- that has defined her career.

As she reviewed a video of her last gold performance one rainy school night recently, Chang professes to feel no intimidation on the competition floor.

"You've lost halfway then," she said.

That determination marks Chang's character. Her family recalls the days before first grade when Chang would storm into their Maryland house, a blond Barbie trailing behind her. She vowed to her mother she would never learn English -- the little girls outside would have to learn Korean to communicate with her. Chang, however, quickly learned the language.

"She accomplishes whatever she sets her mind to," Pirczhalski said.

So when Chang sets her mouth into a straight line to announce she will win an Olympic gold medal in 2008, it is difficult to doubt her.

Despite her success, Chang remains remarkably grounded. She attributes her accomplishments simply to hard work and to the philosophy behind tae kwon do: to be loyal, honorable and confident.

"Tae kwon do is my life," she said.

So much so, she added, that she plans to choose a career that will tie into her sport, from business to pediatrics. She even wore her dobok in her senior class pictures.

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