Two weeks ago, my man and I took our Black Belt test.
We arrived an hour early on test day to find several of the other students who were testing with us already warming up. We were the oldest students by a good twenty-five years that day. Watching those kids warming up was actually kind of intimidating. The test wasn’t a competition; we weren’t being graded against one another or anything like that. Seeing how limber they were, how high they could jump, and how snappy their techniques were reminded me of just how old I am. At age 45, I don’t really think of myself as old. I haven’t even hit the mid-point of my life, if the lifespans of my elders are anything to go on. Taekwondo is kind of a young person’s sport, though. Most of my fellow students are under 30, and of them the majority are well under 20. I didn’t for one minute consider that any of those kids who were warming up would have trouble with endurance or fatigue that day. I, however, was justifiably concerned for myself.
The test began at 1 p.m. and lasted until nearly 4 p.m. We did our forms, which is a solid 10 minutes of surprisingly strenuous activity. It doesn’t look like much when you watch the kids run through their forms, but when you’re actually doing it yourself…boy, it’s a workout! I took my time, collecting my thoughts between each one. Even with that, I managed to find myself in the middle of my Blue Belt form suddenly wondering if I’d done purple yet. Thankfully, my body kicked in, I realized where I was, and I continued on with only a short pause. If Master noticed, he didn’t feel I needed to repeat that form to get it right. I was thankful for that. By the time I finished, ending almost at the same time as my man finished his, I was tired, but I felt great. Getting through that first bit gave me a real boost in energy I hadn’t expected.
The next part was self-defense. Patrick and I worked together on that. We’d practiced together many times, always alternating for each technique. Either I’d attack him or he’d attack me, then we’d switch and do the same technique again before moving on to the next one. At the test, Master asked me to do all ten in a row, first. My mind went completely blank. As Patick attacked me for the first one, it came back to me. The second was good, too. The third…that was another story. I hesitated. I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do.
Normally, I’m good with self-defense. When we can do what feels right, I’m really good. I was disappointed to find out a few months ago that Master had changed his rules about self-defense for the test. It used to be that you got to make up or choose your own 10 self-defense techniques. But, in 2015 they restructured the self-defense moves that we learn with each color belt. Most of the new stuff wasn’t what I’d learned, and that was okay, except the new Black Belt test requirement was to choose one of the techniques from each color belt to make up nine of your 10 techniques. A lot of the new techniques are not at all the kind I’d use; they’re not designed for a 45 year-old woman’s body, especially not for the earthy, strong (yes, kind of manly) build I have. The ones I forgot on test day were the ones that weren’t all that natural for me. I’d practiced them enough to do them right and well, but something in me rebelled against actually using them, I guess. I manged to repeat one of the techniques on test day twice, and I hesitated on at least two of them for what seemed an eternity. I was sorely disappointed in my performance, but I passed. When it was Patrick’s turn, he did really well. I was proud of him.
Sparring was up next. The adrenelin charge of getting through the first two requirements, self-defense and forms, had built a lot of energy and heat in my body. I watched as the other students sparred. We each faced six and a half minutes of sparring against 13 black belts, some of whom were absolutely fierce with the kids who went first. I watched as Master worked up from the youngest student toward the oldest, me. Just when I’d thought I needed to get up and stand or move a little to keep my muscles warm but not so much to use up the energy I would clearly need to get through my own sparring matches, Master called me up to spar. I didn’t even have my helmet on. I’d thought I had to wait through another two students before my turn. He had the glint in his eye that means he probably was trying to shake me. Yep, I can say I wasn’t ready to jump into sparring right then, but I did.
The sparring was a blur. I vaguely remember starting with the first black belt. Then, seemingly suddenly, I was facing the one whom I’d pegged as the mid-point. She was my “rest” because I’d noticed she was slower and lighter with everyone before me. With me, though, she didn’t go slow at all. (Just to be sure it wasn’t just sparring-head telling me she wasn’t letting up, I checked the video and she was more aggressive with me than anyone else that day.) Not having the rest I’d expected didn’t end up mattering all that much. The next set of opponents were a blur and before I realized it I was facing the second to last one. She, like everyone before her, kept her pace and techniques challenging for me but not so far beyond my skills that I ended up getting injured. A blow to the head was my biggest fear–If I have to go back to physical therapy again, I’m going to have to give up this sport I love. Like all the Black Belts before her, she was encouraging, too.
Then, I faced the highest rank who was sparring, J. He is talented, strong, and cunning. When my boy was young, J. inspired both of us to work hard and pay attention to the details in our own forms and techniques. Watching him spar is like watching a fierce Orangatang take apart an opponent. He’s hard, fast, strong, aggressive, and springy. He’s the one who worried me the most; I’ve seen him tear apart other adults and have received a few mighty painful blows from him in classroom sparring and training myself. Thankfully, he didn’t rip my head off. He could have, easily, but he was amazingly controlled. I was grateful.
My man sparred well. It wasn’t his best sparring ever, but he kept moving and even managed to dominate the ring for a few of his rounds. I was proud of him.
After sparring, we broke boards. That was easy. I broke blue boards, which are required for adult women. They’re tough, but if your technique is solid it’s like slicing butter with a sharp knife. I did a side kick and an elbow strike. No problemo. My man broke brown boards, which are harder than blue. He made it look easy, too.
The last part of the test was reading our papers. Mine was entited: My Taekwondo Journey: How Even the Athletically-awkward can Succeed. I was mostly steady. I noticed my hand beginning to shake at one point–I was tired and charged at the same time–but I took a deep breath and continued on. I don’t think anyone noticed. I did not cry or break down or lose my voice–that ‘s happened to at least one person in pretty much every Black Belt testing I’ve ever seen. In our test, it was my man who totally broke down upon reading his paper. I knew it was coming, and happily I’d already read mine by the time he was up. He really is an emotional guy.
The Black Belt test at Duer’s ATA Martial Arts, where I train, is designed to test students in each of the Life Skills that ATA teaches: Courtesy, Loyalty, Respect, Attitude or Spirit, Perseverance, Honor, Self-control, and Integrity. My biggest challenges required attitude, perseverance, and self-control; I had to keep moving despite being tired, being disappointed in my performance, and feeling inadequate next to the others who were and are far more talented than I. It was the most challenging three hours I’ve spent in over a decade.
When the test was over, I knew I’d truly accomplished something Big. As a middle-aged Mom with a black belt, I’m in an elite crowd. I may not be as strong as others, like my man, or as fast and wirery. My techniques may not be as beautiful, sharp, and perfected, and maybe I can’t jump a mile high. But, I can do all of it, forms, self-defense, sparring, board breaks, public speaking…I can defend myself and others. I can keep moving even when the going gets tough. I can stay calm, steady, and strong even under duress. I can keep my balance even when the ground seems to move under my feet or life surprises me. I knew a lot of that before the test, but somehow earning my Black Belt has brought it all into a different focus. I’m proud to say that both my man and I are first degree Black Belts in the toughest school in our region. Now, we have a whole new world of stuff to learn.