Volunteering to do service work at Taekwondo tournaments
has enriched all our martial arts experiences.
On Friday morning, I led little 4-year-old Caroline by the hand at the Austin Convention Center, which for the week had been transformed into one huge dojang for the 20th U.S. Open Taekwondo Championships.
In its 20 years, the U.S. Open has been a destination for many athletes with Olympic dreams. The tournament itself has matured into one of the highest World Taekwondo Federation points-rated competitions in the world. This year it drew over 1,500 competitors from countries as Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Ghana, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and Venezuela.
This season, though, the tournament was a destination for the Diller family, and it inspired big dreams in a little girl deep in the heart of Texas.
Caroline, one of almost two dozen Tao of Texas Martial Arts students who volunteered for the tournament, is one of my Tiny Texans, a mini-martial artist with a lively, energetic, and curious spirit. She came to the Convention Center to volunteer with her mom, older brother Ian, and big sister Eliza. As payment for her cute services, USA Taekwondo gave Caroline an orange U.S. Open volunteer/souvenir T-shirt that went down to her ankles, the chance to cart sparring helmets from ring to ring, and time to read her new flip book while her mom filmed matches for Dartfish. Later that morning, a USA Taekwondo staff member gave her a free meal ticket, and another passed her a clip-on koala that the coach from Australia brought as gifts. She proudly clipped the koala to her lanyard.
Many past Olympic medal winners were there—some walking around in uniform waiting for their turn to compete, some in inconspicuous street clothes. However, seeing the Olympic stars, hearing the numerous foreign languages spoken, and seeing the bright, colorful flags flying overhead from every country imaginable may not be what Caroline remembers most about her first Taekwondo tournament. She’ll one day outgrow the T-shirt and lose the trinket. But one thing she’s likely to keep forever is the sight of female leadership at the tournament.
As I gingerly led Caroline around the 11 rings, we kept our eyes open for white match sheets. They contained pertinent information such as names of the players, countries they represent, weight division, etc. When we saw a paper with a winning player's name circled, we picked it up and delivered it to the tournament desk so that the next bracket could be created.
At one referee desk, a high-ranking female official was putting the finishing touches on a match sheet, so we waited patiently nearby. This particular referee is a veteran known for her demanding style and clear understanding of the rules. She wants her referees to do right things right the first time, and she can be quite intimidating.
I've been at these tournaments before, though, so I know she has a soft side.
"See that lady at the desk?" I asked Caroline. We were close enough for the referee to hear me. "She's wearing a blue jacket, and that means she is a very important referee. She can conduct matches all over the world!"
"Really?" Caroline said, her eyes widening.
When the referee looked like she was finished with her paperwork, I told Caroline, "Ask her if she has any results for us to take back to the tournament desk."
The referee heard me and dutifully played along.
"Do you have any results?" Caroline chirped, a bit shyly.
The referee turned to us. "Here," she said with a kind smile as she handed the paper to Caroline.
I asked Caroline, "How do you say 'thank you' in Korean?"
Caroline smiled at the referee. "Com sam nee dah," she said.
"Comsa Hamnidah!" the referee repeated as she nodded approvingly. She looked at me and smiled, "You're starting them young!"
"Yes, ma'am, I am," I replied, as we turned to go back to the tournament desk.
We zigzagged our way through the rings and spotted a match that was about to end, so we hung out to take those results back, too. Nearby, a female coach was standing next to her player as they waited for their match to begin.
"See this lady, Caroline?" I asked, kneeling down next to her. "She’s a coach. I can remember just a few short years ago, there weren’t many female coaches out there in the sparring ring."
The woman turned, looked down at me and Caroline, and smiled.
"But that’s changed, hasn’t it, ma’am?" I said, looking up at the coach. I winked.
"Yes, it has," she confirmed. "We’ve come a long way."
"What that means, Caroline, is that you can be a coach one day, too," I said.
Caroline beamed. Her golden blonde hair seemed to glow.
"Me?" she asked innocently in her squeaky voice. "I can be a coach?"
"Absolutely," I said. I looked up at the coach. She nodded yes to Caroline.
It was as if Caroline had just been given a new toy. She was excited, and her thoughts immediately turned to her big brother, Ian, whom she adores.
"Then I can be Ian’s coach!" she screamed in halleluiah fashion.
"Yes you can!" I laughed.
Caroline smiled wide, and as we continued walking around the hall, she’d squeeze my hand a little tighter as she repeated, "I’m going to be Ian’s coach when I grow up!"