Duke Taekwondo prepares for a tournament

November 12, 2013

“Ki’ap!” “Ki’ap!” “Ki’ap!” “Ki’ap!” “Ki’ap!” “Ki’ap!”

The cries pop and echo across the room like a lit pack of firecrackers. Hands poised in loose fists, eyes narrowed in fierce concentration, nearly two dozen warriors advance upon invisible opponents beneath squares of fluorescent light in a room lined with blue foam. The traditional war whoop of taekwondo, ki’ap, helps focus the mind, flex the core, and summon the fighting spirit.

On this Tuesday night in September, the Duke taekwondo team is shouting ki’ap and practicing kyorugi, or sparring, in the basement of Wilson gym. Young men and women in T-shirts and athletic shorts dart to and fro while Eric Mastrolonardo ’16 keeps the rhythm by smacking two kicking targets together. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a serene yet jovial air, hewears white cotton pants and a tunic cinched with a strip of black. He pauses the drill momentarily to show his teammates how to keep momentum by staying on the balls of their feet.

“In taekwondo, a huge part of it is footwork,” Mastrolonardo tells his teammates, who already are heaving and flushed just minutes into practice. “Even if your kicks aren’t very good, if your footwork is good, your opponent can’t touch you.”

“Yes, sir!” the group nods in collective deference. Mastrolonardo knows his stuff: As a freshman, he won Duke’s first medal in a blackbelt division at the National Collegiate Taekwondo Championships. He’ll shoot for nationals again this year. The coach is absent this week, so he has stepped up to instruct the team.

Respect: Taekwondo students bow and shake hands before sparring. Les Todd

He calls on a wide-eyed newcomer with glasses and a crew cut to demonstrate for the group. Philipp Lattermann, a Fuqua student from Germany, hesitates. “Me?” It’s his first time doing taekwondo. Mastrolonardo nods. Lattermann enters the ring shyly and performs a gazelle-like double skip. “Wow,” says Mastrolonardo,eyebrows raised, turning to the others. “He’s got power. That was a very excellent demonstration.”

From first-timers like Lattermann to star fighters like Mastrolonardo, the group represents a spectrum of ethnicities, weight classes, skill levels, and belt colors. When Cameron Aubin ’14 was a freshman, about five people came to practice regularly. But due to the enthusiastic recruitment and promotional efforts of students like him, the group has grown into an established club sport. Now nearly thirty members strong, taekwondo is the largest of the three teams that make up the Duke Martial Arts Club (DMAC). The two other teams are Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Israeli Krav Maga.

“We’re all here for different reasons,” says Aubin, president of DMAC and acting coach alongside Mastrolonardo. He says many are hungry to compete, some want to improve their fitness, and others are just curious to learn about the Korean martial art, whose early forms trace back centuries. “But the commonality is that we all do want to get better. That’s why, despite coursework and grades and all these other commitments you have to worry about, we still come to practice every day.”

Tonight’s training is especially critical because the first tournament of the year isjust days away. Duke will compete against five other schools from the Atlantic Collegiate Alliance of Taekwondo, marking the team’s first big scrimmage in the South, where college taekwondo teams are somewhat of a rarity.

Still, Mastrolonardo and Aubin are taking time to teach the beginners. A compact five feet seven inches, Aubin is practically bouncing with excitement to be back from the summer hiatus. While the fourth-tier black belt loves the flashy side of taekwondo—he holds multiple medals in board breaking—he also appreciates the focus and discipline involved, not to mention the self-defense skills. “It turned me into a measured person,” he reflects.

“Taekwondo is like a house,” notes Aubin. “You need to have a good foundation. It’s all about technique. Speed,strength, style—that’s all going to come with a good foundation.”

In taekwondo, fighters face-off and score points with strikes to the chest, sides, or head. And because legs are longer than arms, kicks are the surest weapon. “It’s kind of like fencing with your feet,” Aubin says. In fact, taekwondo means “the way of the hand and the foot.”

Building upon the footwork, the team transitions into kicking—the kinetic essence of the sport. “Fast as you can, hard as you can, ki’aping as loud as you can,” Aubin shouts. Lauren Ellis ’16 teams up with Emily Hardgrove ’17, two longtime sparrers and brand-newfriends. Hardgrove holds a kicking target, a padded implement shaped like a small tennis racquet, while Ellis kicks. With a forceful “ki’ap!” Ellis delivers the roundhouse kick, swinging her leg in a semicircle, hitting the target with the side of her foot, and returning to fighting position all in one swift motion. For the axe kick, she extends her leg high and brings her foot down on the target like a boxer batting down a balloon.

Finally, “when in doubt, back kick,” so goes the team’s unofficial motto. Sean McCroskey, a slim freshman with coppery hair, holds a large black foam shield. Mastrolonardo practices a few airborne back kicks—pivoting on one foot and driving his heel straight back into the shield, as a horse might ram its hoof in defense.

Aim high: Team president Cameron Aubin in a midair axe kick. Les Todd

“Oh, my aim! Where did it go?” He shakes his head, a flip-flop tan perhaps hinting at a summer of irregular practice. He tries again, this time kicking with such forceful precision that he sends McCroskey flying.

“You found it!” says McCroskey, reeling like a Slinky from the blow.

“Oh, did I hit you?” Mastrolonardo asksearnestly, putting his hand on McCroskey’s shoulder. The latter rubs his nose and nods but laughs it off.

Meanwhile, Latterman is struggling with the roundhouse kick. Mastrolonardo wanders over to give him a few pointers and assures him: “You’ll learn. We’ll teach you.”

Cheeks flush pink, and the room grows humid. The kicking wraps up and the rookies filter to one end of the room to practice more basics, led by Aubin. At the other end of the room, a smaller group prepares for the crowning moment of practice: sparring.

They suit up in an assortment of worn,yellowed protective gear: arm and shin guards, padded insteps like toeless gloves for the feet, and red and blue chest protectors, which look like stiff lifejackets. At the tournament, sensors embedded in the pads will register scoring based on contact and amount of pressure. For now, the athletes must kick accurately and powerfully without harming the opponent. Or in the words of Aubin, “No knockouts.”

Ellis and Hardgrove enter the ring and face each other. Mastrolonardo, playing referee, calls out Korean commands: “Cha ryuht, choon bi, kyung nae,” meaning, “Attention, ready, bow.” The teammates bow and shake hands like courteous diplomats. Then Mastrolonardo signals the start with an emphatic “Ki’ap!”

In an instant, they clash, ponytails sailing. Ellis and Hardgrove employ the footwork and kicks from earlier in the evening. They pursue and retreat, revolving and lunging at each other like fiddler crabs. To the untrained eye, sparring looks like a blur of scuffling limbs, grapples, and blows. But upon closer inspection, it is clear that the women are engaged in an intricate dialogue of strategic blocks, light-speed fake-outs, and dynamic kicks. Each move seems to combine the calculation of chess with the flexible brawn of ballet.

As he surveys the sparring, Mastrolonardo calls out with reminders for control and decisiveness: “Be watchful,” and, “Kick once, kick twice, clench or get out of the way.Have a purpose in mind.”

After many rounds of sparring, Aubincalls time. The fighters circle up, dazed and sweaty. As they peel off their gear, Mastrolonardo preps them for the imminent tournament and offers feedback. “Whatever happens, always learn from your mistakes,” he says. “Even if you win everything, still learn from your mistakes.” Even the black belts are not above critique.

“The black belt’s really just the first step,” notes Aubin. “A lot of people think the black belt is the end, but it’s not. It’s really just the beginning."

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.