story by Rose Kahele
photos by Dana Edmunds
Koko Marina Shopping Center’s Tae Kwon Do Center is a very noisy place right now. The nearly two-dozen three- to six-year-olds in the martial arts studio’s Panther class are doing drills, and their kicks, blocks and punches are delivered to the staccato rhythm of “I-LOVE-MY-TAE-KWON-DO!” and “I-LOVE-MY-MOMMY-AND-DADDY!” and “I-LOVE-MY-SCHOOL-WORK!” Earlier, they did their stretching exercises while singing the ABCs.
There are a lot of punches and affirmations thrown about over the course of the forty-five-minute class. But undoubtedly the biggest noisemaker in the 8,000-square-foot studio is Grandmaster Hee Il Cho, the center’s enthusiastic sixty-six-year-old founder and head instructor. In addition to his booming, gravelly voice that bounces off the studio’s mirrored walls, Cho—equal parts Mr. Miyagi and Sergeant Rock—punctuates his instructions by slapping together two large arm pads normally used during striking drills. The resulting sound is as loud as a thunderclap, but the children, some of them barely out of their toddler years, don’t even ﬂinch (unlike a few parents in attendance). The kids are too busy loving their tae kwon do.
“Teaching children this young is a difficult task,” says Cho. “At this age, it’s much like preschool, where they learn how to be separated from their parents and be comfortable in a strange situation. They come to the studio. They run. They exercise and have fun. I try to play with them and show the kids a little affection early on—before we start and I get strict. That way they know I support and like them and I’m not trying to be mean.”
Cho, still well-muscled and pretzel flexible in his seventh decade, is a martial arts icon. He is a master of tae kwon do, the Korean martial art renowned for its powerful striking and acrobatic kicks.
A ninth-degree black belt, he’s won more than thirty national and international tournaments, been inducted into just about every martial arts hall of fame on the planet and has also starred in four Hollywood movies, playing a martial arts competition judge in two films (Bloodsport II and Bloodsport III) and a coach and a revered teacher in two others (Best of the Best and Fight to Win). He has written eleven books, produced seventy instructional videos and promoted more than 4,000 black belts over a four-decade-plus teaching career. In 2005, Cho was named the Tae Kwon Do Times’ teacher of the year, one of his many teaching awards. And then there are the magazine covers, maybe the most telling indicator of Cho’s stature in the martial arts community: He has been featured on more than fifty covers of various martial arts magazines. Only Bruce Lee has been showcased more.
There was a time when it was unimaginable that Grandmaster Cho would be instructing the tots now found in his Panther class. Thirty years ago, tae kwon do was almost exclusively an all-boys club and populated by a lot of very tough boys at that—according to Cho, in those days, classes always ended in full-contact sparring, and, without the use of protective gear, students and instructors often went home with a broken nose or rib. But tae kwon do, martial arts and the world changed. And so, too, did Cho.