Liberty County’s sixth annual tae kwon do tournament drew more than 100 participants, but a select few in attendance made the event extra special for organizer and coach Grand Master Rafael Medina.
Mixed in with the different levels of fighters, competing and coaching in both forms and sparring, Medina and a few other men were recognized for establishing the Armed Forces tae kwon do team.
“It started a long time ago,” recalled Pedro Laboy, who was a specialist in the Army in the early 1980s. “I met Medina in Korea but met back up when we got to the States. I was running a little program on post. We found a place to train and somehow — because I was already in the system for tae kwon do, and he was in karate and it was a different system — somehow I was able to get him qualified, and from there we started with a little group of soldiers representing Fort Bragg.”
The men trained for two hours every morning before their
6 a.m. physical training. At first, they had no funds, training location or support from the Army. But Laboy said that all changed after they competed at local events and started bringing in trophies.
“That gave us a little reputation on post,” he said. “We were just proud to be out of Fort Bragg and represent the Army post. We went to state, and that gave us a big pull because we won some medals there. We were able to take that back to the post and get the support from the base. They gave us support, they gave us a van and we were able to find a place to train properly.”
In 1985, the Army tae kwon do team was formed at Fort Bragg. Laboy, Medina and Spc. Mark Green competed in the North Carolina state championship and won gold medals. Later that year, that same team went on to represent Fort Bragg in the national tournament against civilian teams. Due to Laboy and Medina’s efforts, the Army formally recognized tae kwon do as a sport in 1988.
“I first started in 1988 with the Army,” Bobby Clayton said. “That is when we started training for the 1988 nationals.”
In 1994, the Army, Navy and Air Force combined to create the Armed Forces tae kwon do team, with Laboy and Medina serving as coaches. In 1995, Clayton led the team to the national championship and became a coach.
Clayton said he was
6 years old when he started in tae kwon do. The current eighth-degree black belt said he wanted to be at the tournament to support Medina and the other military brothers who brought teams to the event.
“I’ve been deployed for a long time and I just got back, and I found out there was a tournament here. I was still unpacking. We just bought a house in Virginia, but I wanted to come,” Clayton said.
Laboy, also a grand master, said the event was another testament to Medina’s ability to grow and nurture the sport.
For the fifth year in a row, Juan Catalan brought his team from Boca Raton, Fla.
He said it was Medina who got him back into the sport after he briefly quit training.
Johnny Martinez brought a team of 13 fighters all the way from Puerto Rico.
“I know Medina because he was the coach of the Armed Forces team, and he was the trainer of a friend of mine in Puerto Rico who was in the Armed Forces,” he said. “We met and from there the friendship began.”
Martinez said his team, Intensive Tae Kwon Do, competes in Puerto Rico three or four times a year. They travel abroad about once a year.
“We’ve known each other for several years now and when they told me he was hosting this tournament, I knew we had to come,” he said, adding that it was their first time in Georgia. “This year we decided to come here and I think we will be back next year.”