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A Smashing Success in an Ancient Sport : Tae kwon do: At 18, black-belt David Kang has launched a fruitful career in the 'art of kicking and punching.'

July 04, 1993|SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the speed of a sprinter and the accuracy of a marksman, 18-year-old David Kang demonstrated his athletic skill in an unusual way.

Kang, a third-degree black belt in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do, placed a medium-sized apple on a foot-long stick and asked a student to hold the other end.

"Be still. It won't hurt," Kang assured Connie Yoon, 16, a beginning student from Arcadia.

After pacing off eight steps, Kang carefully took aim. In one continuous motion, he jumped three feet, turned 360 degrees and made a roundhouse kick that pulverized the apple. He repeated the trick four times Tuesday, showering the floor of the Do San Tae Kwon Do Gym in Silver Lake with tiny pieces of apples.

"I can break watermelons, too," Kang said, proudly.

Big-time fruit-smashers such as David Letterman and Gallagher would have found Kang's stunt amusing. But Kang was trying to provide more than laughs.

A rising young star in an ancient martial art, Kang, of Hollywood, has the athletic ability and charisma to shine light on a sport that has been overshadowed by karate.

Kang won the bronze medal in the featherweight division (127.6 to 140.8 pounds) in May in the U.S. Championships in St. Paul, Minn. Then he won his weight division at the U.S. Team Trials in Chicago. Kang will be competing Aug. 19-21 in the World Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York, which will be televised nationally by ABC.

"He has been very successful in a short time," said Master Kwang Bai Kim, Kang's teacher.

Considered the world's most popular martial art, tae kwon do combines the movements of karate and the circular patterns of kung fu while stressing kicking rather than hand combat.

Tae kwon do (literally "the art of kicking and punching") awards points for kicks to the head and "trembling blows" to the body. Unlike karate, tae kwon do matches are not stopped to award points. Action is continuous for three, three-minute periods, with one-minute breaks between.

"It's a very demanding sport because you don't get time to rest," Kang said.

As in judo, levels of achievement are designated by colored belts, beginning with white and advancing to black. Once a practitioner reaches black belt, he or she can advance as high as eighth-degree black belt, with a designation of ninth degree reserved as an honor for lifetime achievement. Kang is a third-degree black belt. His teacher, Kim, is seventh-degree black belt.

Tae kwon do, which originated more than 2,000 years ago, was an Olympic demonstration sport for the first time in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. Although more than 100 countries compete in tae kwon do, it is uncertain whether it will remain a demonstration sport at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Kim, who also is vice president of the California State Tae Kwon Do Assn., is optimistic that the sport will become sanctioned as an Olympic event. "I think there is an 80% chance it will appear in Atlanta," said Kim, who owns three studios, including Do San, the city's oldest. "It depends on how much revenue the sport can generate and how many gold medals the Americans can expect to win."

Kim, 40, has trained Kang since his pupil was 11.

While growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Kang said he was a target of other youths' racial slurs. He said he tried to "become Americanized," going so far as to bleach the front part of his hair. However, his mother insisted that Kang recognize his Korean heritage and enrolled him in tae kwon do classes because tae kwon do, in addition to being a sport, is a philosophy and has its own tenets.

"My mother wanted me to learn discipline and get more involved with my culture," Kang said. "I didn't want to wear something that looked like pajamas--I wanted to ride a skateboard and have fun.

"I think the turning point was when I turned 14. Every kid likes to fight, and I didn't want to get beaten up."

Practicing four hours a day, five days a week, Kang quickly developed confidence. He successfully competed in tournaments with children his age, but was too young to test his talents against adults in national competition.

In tournaments, participants are required to wear foam protective pads, groin cups, chest protectors and headgear. Still, nothing protects the body from the force of a well-placed kick.

"Imagine, if you can, getting hit in the chest by a 90-m.p.h. fastball," Master Yonge Shinn said. "The only difference is that a foot is a lot bigger than a baseball."

In 1990, Kang entered his first national tournament at Madison, Wis., against competitors nearly twice as old. Kang's first match was stopped after he received a blow to the head.

"He kicked me hard in the face," said Kang, who as a left-hander has a built-in advantage against his mostly right-handed opponents. "I couldn't move my jaw. I was fighting guys who were 27 and 28 and had beards. There was no way I was going to win."

The following year, Kang again lost in the first round of the nationals, but at least he completed his match. In 1992, he reached the third round.

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