Sophomore Zack Loehle changes immediately as he steps onto the mat. Having described himself as socially awkward before, he now looks centered and relaxed as he stands among his fellow black-belts. His shoulders roll back and he appears bigger and more in control than ever before.
As the instructor calls the class to order, he gets in line with his classmates, all of whom are much older than him. His movements are precise and fluid in everything he does – from stretching and warming up to forms and moves. He has adapted to this perfectly, and he seems to know it. As the instructor yells for 25 push-ups and 50 crunches, he drops and does them. He is always the first one finished, without exceptions.
Zack has been practicing Taekwondo for seven years. He started under the instruction of Master Claude T. Sullivan, who owns the school that Zack attends and who is still his main teacher. He originally started taking classes because, according to Zack, he was “having some trouble at school socially and [has] never been that big into sports.” Zack heard about the new martial arts school that was opening and thought he would give it a shot. He was only eight years old.
Over the years, Zack has noticed some trends. “When I don’t take [a class] for a few weeks, I’ll start getting angrier over small things, and my temper gets really short,” he said. “Then I’ll take a class and it disperses.”
Allan Loehle, Zack’s father, noticed this, too. “We’ve noticed in a lot of ways how good [Taekwondo] is for not just the exercise but the focus,” he said. “The mental part is almost as useful as the physical part.”
“You don’t necessarily have to want to hurt people,” Allan said. “But you do have to want to win, and I don’t think that’s ever been Zack’s motive to do Taekwondo. It’s more internal. He doesn’t do it to dominate people or be better.”
Zack’s studio is not geared towards the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) style of fighting – in fact, they strongly discourage it. “Some people will come in expecting to be able to do the MMA wrestling kind of fighting, but that’s a very small part,” Zack said.
His father agrees. “This studio is not about being tough. It is much more in the philosophy of the actual martial art,” Allan said. “Humility and humbleness are much more a part of it than machoness.”
Zack’s instructor, Alicia Brandt, stresses form and respect in particular. “We are a traditional martial arts school, so we do try to instill the same values that traditional martial arts instill in their schools,” she said. “Respect is a large part of it.”
For Zack, martial arts didn’t just help him mentally, physically and socially, they also helped him get through one of the toughest times in his life. In eighth grade, Zack was in a massive car accident and was legally dead for a few minutes. At the time of the accident, he was just preparing to take his second-degree black belt test.
He suffered massive brain trauma and several broken bones. The pain was so intense that even under the influence of several pain killers, he was unable to answer the doctor’s questions. The doctors were stumped. Until one of the nurses found out that he was a martial artist.
The nurse, who was also a martial artist, went to Zack and told him to focus on his training to try and push through the pain. Miraculously, it worked. Zack was able to answer questions and speak through the pain that had kept him silent.
It was six months until he would take a full class again. It took him nine months to get to the point where he could test for his second degree black belt.
His second-degree test was his hardest yet. He had to spar three times, back to back, every time with more people. His first was against one, then two and finally three. He was hardly able to rest between them. “It was a very hard test, and he was still not fully recovered. He instantly had bad headaches and fatigue again and was asleep in the car all the way home. So it brought back a lot of the symptoms of the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), but he got through it.” Allen said.
While the test may have brought back the symptoms of a TBI, returning to class also seemed to be helping “I would usually feel better after taking a class.” Zack said.
Allen agrees. “Being dedicated to the martial arts already helped him get through the accident, and getting back to it and keeping with it helped him heal.”
He used to go to five hour-long classes a week, and often did back-to-back classes, but now with school work he has been reduced to three or, if he’s lucky, four classes a week.
Zack is extremely modest about his proficiency in the martial arts, claiming “It’s not really a big thing.” But it may be the biggest thing in his life. It has helped him break through social and pain barriers. He even plans to test again in the coming fall. “It is like a renaissance in a way – once you reach first and second and get better at the stuff you learned when you were a colored belt, you realize it’s really never ending.” For Zack, black belt is only the beginning.