Tommy Geng waited patiently on the giant blue mat for his name to be called. He was vibrating with subdued energy, as he sat cross-legged, listening to the other students’ names being announced. Surrounded by a sea of shiny faced children and adults waiting for their new belts, he faced the Taekwondo instructors and esteemed masters from three of the area’s USTA Taekwondo studios – Bellingham, Lynden and Ferndale. Family and supporters packed the wooden bleachers to bear witness as trophies and ornate certificates of achievement were collected. This was the night for the students to be celebrated for their evolution into martial artists.
As Tommy entered the Ferndale High School’s gymnasium for his black belt ceremony, he recalls checking the program and saying to himself, “Are you kidding me? I have to sit until last … almost forever?” The evening would include boards shattering into splinters, men and women who used each others’ backs like stair steps into thin air, nunchucks, and several aerial and flying kicks from the demo team. There were choreographed routines to the rhythm of upbeat music which elicited cheers from the fans. All the while Tommy sat with hands on knees, patiently waiting.
Working toward a black belt must have seemed like an eternity to a child who’d started practicing Taekwondo when he was only four. Now at the ripe age of eight, he’d collected colored belts like many children collect Pokémon cards (Tommy included). Four years ago, after a two-week summer trail as a “Little Tiger,” Tommy became a serious and devoted student. He was hooked.
In order to achieve a black belt in Taekwondo, one has to master increasingly challenging physical skills as well as codes of conduct such as courtesy, integrity and self-control. As students progress through the belts, the teaching style changes and more of the students’ individual effort is required. Tommy had to write an essay describing his journey through Taekwondo. In his own words, “I ran for my target! I made a HUGE whiteboard at home to record all my techniques. I kept practicing, harder and harder and HARDER until I had 0% strength to use.”
Having passed a set of rigorous martial art moves called a “poomse,” Tommy progressed through several colors on his progression from white to black belt. But this wasn’t the most impressive aspect of his accomplishment, according to one of his teachers, Master Sonny Lee. Rather it’s two of the five tenets of Taekwondo’s student oath for which he had innately demonstrated mastery from the youngest age- perhaps the most difficult to teach- “Indomitable Spirit” combined with “Perseverance.” Master Lee said, “Tommy may appear small, but really, in spirit, he’s a little man.” When asked if he could be a prodigy, Master Lee agreed saying, “I never had any hard times with Tommy. My only challenge was how to keep Tommy challenged.”
Tommy’s commitment has remained strong. That consistency, combined with athletic quickness and flexibility, make him a contender for a future of high level Taekwondo competition. In the meantime, he doesn’t miss classes and his parents say they are still able to harness his enthusiasm to encourage his good behavior at home.
The Taekwondo studio becomes a second home for adults and children alike. The word “dojang” in Korean, brakes down to: “Do” (?) meaning “the way” or “art” and “Jang” (?) meaning “a place.” Together they are translated as, “ the place where one practices the way.” Tommy will continue with his two weekly sessions, plus an Olympic Sparring class on Fridays. This would be a substantial commitment for anyone, even a devoted and highly focused eight-year-old.
Tommy’s mother, Tracy Geng moved to Bellingham from China ten years ago. She was recruited by Zodiac Airline Interior Integration (Heath Tecna) to design interior electrical systems for the airline industry. She confided, “He prepared for his ‘poomse’ on his own by writing out every move in all eight routines to memorize the series. We didn’t tell him to do this. He did it all by himself.”
According to his earliest teacher, instructor Chris Dillard, “I do remember him as a little tiger. He was always a very focused child. That hasn’t changed which is why I think he’s been so successful.” Mr. Dillard remembers Tommy as a serious student who’s learned over time to have more fun while maintaining his natural focus.
Good things come to those with patience and perseverance. For Tommy Geng, the wait was worth the effort. As the other students sat and listened to the announcer call their names, Tommy maintained an intent gaze and steady smile. Then, the moment arrived. When he heard his name, Tommy stood and promptly jumped over the heads of a few little tiger students seated in front of him. He said he didn’t even see them or remember he’d leaped. When one has worked this hard to reach a goal there’s no more patience, just pure enthusiasm and a joyful pounce. Tommy accepted his black belt and a heavy trophy, almost as big as he is.