February 28, 2006

S.Korean grandmothers get a kick out of taekwondo

By Frances Yoon

SEOUL (Reuters) - At 74, there are several things that warm
the heart of Ji Bok-hyun, such as seeing her grandchildren
smile and pounding her fist through wooden tiles.

Ji is one of a group of 23 South Korean grandmothers, all
of whom are 70 or older, practicing the high-kicking and
hard-punching martial art of taekwondo at a gymnasium in
Inchon, about an hour west of Seoul.

The traditional Korean martial art is widely taught in
South Korean schools and most young men in the country learn
taekwondo as part of compulsory military service.

But for these grandmothers, taekwondo is a way to keep
themselves happy and healthy.

"Smashing! I really like smashing the slabs. It releases my
stress that I get from home," said Ji, who has been practicing
the martial art for nine years.

Ji, who has five grandchildren, is a black-belt holder and
leads the class.

Almost half of the grandmothers have reached the
highest-level ranking of holding black belts.

While most taekwondo athletes aspire to smash wooden or
ceramic tiles with their feet, hands or head, the grandmothers
mostly break plastic tiles with prefabricated fissures.

There is no granny-on-granny fighting during practices but
several of the septuagenarians said they were ready to fend off
an attacker.


While practicing her high kicks, 74-year-old Cho Jong-jae
howls like kung-fu legend Bruce Lee, and the other grandmothers
break into laughter.

"I haven't been sick once since I started coming here three
years ago. I'm here because it's fun. If it wasn't, I wouldn't
want to do it," says Cho, who has a red belt.

Yet 77-year-old Kim Hee-bok, who is the oldest of the
group, focuses more on slower movements and stretches. Before
she began learning the sport, she had trouble simply moving.
She had been suffering from diabetes and arthritis for years.

"I couldn't even walk up five flights of stairs before.
Now, I can go up more than 50-60 stairs," she says.

She heard about the lessons from her fellow classmates and
asked her son and daughter to walk her to class every day until
she was finally able to walk on her own.

"Coming here is much better than going to the hospital.
Even my doctor says to attend the class every day."

Master Yoon Yeo-ho has been teaching senior citizens for 15
years and constantly experiments with ways to make taekwondo
more granny-friendly.

"I have been teaching taekwondo to senior citizens and they
said it has helped with arthritis, diabetes and being
overweight," he said.

Some doctors said the martial art can help older people
stay healthy, as long as they avoid being on the receiving end
of a kick to the head.

"Taekwondo is a combination of cardiovascular exercises,
muscle training and it also helps flexibility. It is good for
heart-related diseases, releasing stress and preventing one
from feeling old," says Dr. Yoo Tai-woo of Seoul National
University's department of family medicine.

"But adjustments are required when breaking blocks and
kicks," Yoo cautioned for seniors with brittle bones.


Although teacher Yoon is happy to see the senior citizens
enjoying themselves, he says it is not always easy teaching
them the moves.

"They would forget what I taught them after one hour later
or a day later," Yoon said.

Yoon heads the Korea Grandma T.K.D Federation, which
focuses on teaching grandmas the sport and hosts taekwondo
contests for them. Several of the grandmothers in Yoon's class
received awards, which stand on bookshelves in the back of the

The sport's official association in South Korea is thrilled
about the grandmas' enthusiasm for taekwondo, which became an
official sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and hope to get
them involved in national competitions.

"We support them because they are breaking the stereotype
that taekwondo is a difficult sport," said Kim Moon-cheon, a
training manager of the Korea Taekwondo Association

Yoon goes through one last routine of the two-hour session.
"We're doing well!" a grandmother shouts after they complete a
final punch.

The class comes toward an end with stretches coordinated to
a local tune that was first popular when they were young.

"Feel my back. It is wet with sweat," one grandmother said,
grabbing her fellow classmate's hand.