The floor is a hard cement -- cold against my bare feet. I haven’t eaten for fear that I’d have to fight right away. I’m hungry, but too anxious to eat. I’ve worked so hard to get here -- no second-chances. I'll only have one shot.
My family drove down to San Antonio for the day so that my kid brother OJ and I could compete. Not everyone coming was from Texas -- in fact, competitors were coming from all over the country. These were the Junior Olympics, afterall. I tried to catch some sleep in the back of the car with no luck. I spent the whole time staring at the gray felt ceiling and trying to picture what it would be like. I was more than a little nervous.
I had seen the twelve-year-old black belts fight at State. Because they were so small, they moved with lightning speed -- and their kicks had a wicked accuracy. Not long before my match I saw one child have his head kicked so hard that he blacked out, blood arcing out of his mouth. Though his opponent was disqualified, I didn’t feel any better.
I’m lucky at the weigh-in. I weigh in at just under 155 pounds. That’s good. I’m at the very top of my weight class. Master Ahn told me, “Don’t let them stick you at the bottom of your weight class. If they do, go out and run for an hour, go to the bathroom, do whatever you have to. Demand a re-weigh. They’ll have to let you do it.”
The building is divided into two areas: a large one, with a dozen fighting arenas taped off and surrounded by bleachers, and a small one, carpeted and filled with other kids waiting to fight. I figure I have a long while until I have to fight, so I spend a lot of time in the waiting area. I stretch and watch kids from other schools. Many have two or three coaches with them, helping them warm up. I can see them trying to psyche everyone else out. To be honest, I’m not sure if I am altogether unaffected by them, in their matching jumpsuits and special equipment.
When I get bored of stretching, I take a walk around the fighting arenas - but I don’t hang around for long. If I spend too much time watching any given match, I feel my heart pounding and my muscles tensing. I remember Master Hines once remarking on how boxers often stay in the locker-room right up until their match; watching other fights tires you out. I’m beginning to see the truth of that.
During State, a few months before, I actually felt nauseous watching all the fighting. There weren’t separate areas for fighting and waiting, so I had to stare at the ceiling to avoid throwing up. That was my first tournament, and my anxiety was unbelievably high; I never thought I could ever feel that excited or worried about anything anymore, but I was very, very wrong.
My age and weight classes are called on the overhead mike. At least I think so (one couldn’t be completely sure with the Korean announcer fellow’s English). I don my gear -- a white foam helmet, cloth arm pads, cloth leg pads, a soft, cotton-stuffed chest pad, and the most important article of protective wear: my cup. I stride over to where I am supposed to meet my opponents. My brother had been called up minutes before, so I know my time is coming. The people in charge are busy sorting us when I get to the designated area. Man-oh-man am I glad to be in the weight bracket that I am! Eight or nine mean looking individuals are in the line just next to me. Ten pounds really makes a big difference.
It turns out that only two other red belts from my age/weight group have showed up. We are led to the edge of one of the sparring areas, where we wait for it to be freed. Directly across from me and to the right, who do I see but OJ, my kid brother, fighting his way to victory. He wasn’t quite as lucky as I was in terms of who was in his age/weight bracket. He ends up having to fight six or seven other green belts. He, of course, beats them all. They place the gold medal over his head just as I rise to begin my first match.
OJ and I had started taking Tae Kwon Do during my sophomore year of high school. I suppose the only thing that kept me in it, in the beginning, was the rivalry between us. As our skills rose, so did our fraternal competitiveness. It quickly became a race of who could do what better. This was not something new; ever since we were kids we have always had that sort of rivalry between us. I suppose it only stands to reason, with our ages being so close. Of course by now, our skills have grown to the point that such a rivalry is really pointless. It is well-established that I usually have better technique and flexibility than he, whereas he has the sort of “killer instinct” that lets him spar so well.
Previous fights jump into my head, but I push them out as I walk up to the ring. I can’t let my brain buzz at me when I have to focus. My dad had come up to me seconds before, telling me that OJ had won. I replied that I saw it happen. He also told me that he felt that the winning strategy is to just keep attacking no matter what. I consider his advice.
The match begins.
Neither one of us moves right away. We throw jabbing kicks at each other -- still feeling the other out and probing for weaknesses. I notice that after he blocks high, he leaves his stomach open for a split second longer than he should. I take advantage of the opportunity and throw a roundhouse aimed at the side of his head, fluidly followed by a back-kick to his stomach, in quick succession. He dodges the roundhouse, but I know before I even feel my heel touch the plastic of his chest pad, the second lands beautifully and he stumbles backwards, just managing to catch his balance. One point to me. I try it again, but this time he has adapted and he dodges both, and then counters with his own kick, which I block. There is a pause . . . and then the referee stops the match.
Apparently the scoring computers have temporarily gone down. My opponent goes to confer with his coach. I go to Master Ahn. He tells me to keep using combinations -- they seem to work well against my adversary. In moments the computers are back up, and so are we.
We fight, moving as one; maintaining a small distance between us. When our exchanges become furious and intense, the gap between us almost vanishes, our hands and feet a blur. When we slow down, the gap widens, our kicks furtive and probing. After a brief time, the computers go down again. Then up, then down again. The fourth time, the computer stops with two seconds left on the clock. During the space between my first point and the end, my adversary has managed to score against me three times -- giving him an advantage of two points. Master Ahn and I decide that there isn’t any point in waiting for them to go back up again, since I was down by two, so my opponent is awarded the win.
During the match, my mindset had been to score as many points as possible. This obviously didn’t work. Somewhere along the way I had forgotten that I had to spar, which was give and take. Attack and defend. By letting myself devote my whole attention to attack, I had left my defenses down and been scored on thrice.
I had lost.
I'd never lost before; not when it was important. The following months were filled with a great sense of disillusionment and incompleteness. I felt like I had been cheated. I blamed my dad for bad advice. I blamed the computers for going down four times. I blamed everything and everyone but myself. The simple truth is that I had tried my best, and failed.
What I chose to do after the match is something I’m not proud of. They say that these are the times when your character is proved, but when faced with this losing, I chose to act childishly and ungraciously: I did not smile for the cameras, but rather stared blankly. I lost my appetite that evening. I just wanted to go home and sleep.
Later, after the match, I get tired of waiting for my parents to finish buying T-shirts or the like, so I go back to the waiting area. OJ is there and doing well, but I have to help him walk around -- Funnily enough, he had kicked so many people and their elbows (which some inexperienced or malicious fighters use to block with) that his ankle has become quite swollen. It’ll be okay after some ice is applied though. Also in the waiting room is a young girl, around the age of fifteen or so. Her name is Heidi.
Heidi has come all the way from Washington. Apparently she got here only to find that no one at all is in her age and weight bracket. Consequently she was awarded the gold medal without even fighting! And she’s angry. She wanted to fight, but didn’t get a chance to. I speak with her, incredulous.
It is only now that I realize how foolish I was, for I was sitting there, envying her medal. Only now do I realize that my priorities were all mixed up. Caring more about the medal than the fight is nuts! The competition wasn’t about medals or winning -- it was about getting the chance to fight new opponents from across the country -- people who you would really enjoy fighting. I didn’t feel that Heidi’s case was such a tragedy at the time, but now it seems so obvious.
When we got back to Dallas, one of OJ’s friends got to the microphone at Assembly. He made us stand up and told everyone that we’d gone to the Junior Olympics and that we’d both medaled. There was the appropriate hushed astonishment and applause. But I knew the truth. I’d lost.
That was the mindset that I had kept for over a year. I was conflicted and for weeks I lost sleep over thinking what I could have done differently. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret every time I thought about that competition. But, I’d been thinking about it all wrong. I would have truly lost if I had stayed at home.
Jeff DeSouza 2001