The Liberty County Recreation Department Sports Taekwondo Center team hosted its fifth annual Liberty Taekwondo Championship on Saturday. The event included top competitors from around the region.
Among the talented young taekwondo athletes were several Junior Olympic competitors and a few Olympic hopefuls for the 2016 squad.
This was the vision Grand Master Rafael Medina had when he started this meet five years ago. Medina was among the very first taekwondo fighters for the United States Army team when it formed in Fort Bragg in 1985. He was also among the first Armed Forces Team coaches.
"Medina is the grandfather of the organization," referee and certified coach Michael R. Bennett said. "I’m here to help out with the organization."
Bennett, who was on hand watching the forms competition, said referees want to see crisp movements from competitors.
"They are looking to see how crisp and sharp their technique is," he said. "Technique is very important in taekwondo, you can have good form and that is one thing but if you show the proper technique while demonstrating forms, as if you were actually fighting someone, it makes it easier for the judges to tell if you’ve been practicing using the techniques versus just going through the motions."
Bennett said there’s a reason for the forms competition."What we are here to do is show those who are weak in their form
that they need to improve," Bennett said. "It doesn’t mean they are not winners it just means they need to improve on their techniques. We are not just looking at how high the kick is, but how perfect the kick is played. If it’s done right then it is good."
About eight different taekwondo academies were at the meet. Mudo College of Taekwondo from Orange Park, Fla., and Team Taekwondo Athletic Center based out of Coconut Creek, Fla., had several competitors shine at the event.
Mudo College member Madoka Vaughn, a second degree black belt, took first place in her division in forms.
"I just like the art, it’s magnificent and it’s graceful and it’s a great way to show your power and how you can move," Vaughn said.
Vaughn said she has taken several first place ribbons in forms during her eight years in the sport. She said she was looking forward to the sparring portion of the event as well.
"It’s somewhat like form, somewhat graceful yet you have to have agility and speed to fight and do well," she said.
LCRD Sports Taekwondo Team member Emilee Hein, 9, took first place in her age and belt division. The orange belt said she’s been in taekwondo for around two years.
"I like the way that it looks," Hein said about competing in forms. Hein went on to win her sparring event later that afternoon.
Two-time undefeated Junior Olympic champion Craig Starling also represented Team Mudo College and took first place during his sparring event. Berry is confident Starling will make the Junior Olympic squad again and could potentially be a hopeful for a future USA Olympic team.
"Craig has been with me for the last three and a half years and he is an exceptional kid," Ron Berry, owner of Mudo College, said. "We didn’t want to move him too fast because I’ve played this game, I was a national team member myself, and I know if somebody rushes too fast they can get burned out really easy."
Sparring is scored based on clean and powerful contacts made during a bout to certain areas of the body.
"Any time there is a bout point scored to the body it’s one point, unless the point results in an eight count, and then it gets two points," Berry said. "If they fall down and don’t get back up after a 10 count then it’s a knockout. A kick to the head is two points, if it results in an eight count it becomes three points."
Coach Juan Catalan of Team Taekwondo Athletic Center saw two of his girls, Gabriella and Daniella Bonfante, win their sparring bouts by knockout shots to the head of their opponents. Catalan brought his team to last year’s bout to prepare them for the junior qualifiers.
"Last time we were here we were training for the nationals," he said. "We went to the qualifiers, where we got gold and all 14 of my competitors made the junior Olympics and senior nationals, and they all got gold in all their respective divisions."
He said the sisters are already being highly recruited.
"That’s what they train for," he said of the girls. "They train to fight taekwondo and we train hard six days a week just for them to get to that level."
The coach said the girls, both red belts, are very good friends with the Puerto Rico Olympic team and he thinks the girls are Olympic hopefuls for either for Team USA or Team Puerto Rico for the 2016 Olympics.
"The scout for the Puerto Rican team has already seen the girls and given them first dibs for spots," he said.
But Catalan said the event is about more than just showcasing the youngsters’ talent.
"This event allows them to continue training plus it’s an exchange of sportsmanship," he said. "We are here to support Master Medina and support the movement of Taekwondo."