For Grand Master Young Su Choung, visiting Cuba is like going to his backyard. We find him staying at the Hotel Nacional, in the heart of Havana. Every year he returns with his pupils to train with Cuba’s top athletes or to give Tae Kwon Do classes.
Master Choung moved from South Korea and settled in Canada in 1980. Five years later he was the Head Coach of the Canadian National Team, a position he held with great success until 2003.
In that period he coached at 10 Tae Kwon Do World Cups, Pan American Championships, and Olympic Games of Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992.
Dominique Bosshart, one of Master Choung's disciples, was a finalist in the 1999 World Cup and an Olympic medalist in Sydney 2000. Another of his disciples, Courtney Condie, was third in the 2006 World Junior Championship.
Presently, he is an 8th Degree Black Belt and holds numerous executive Tae Kwon Do positions and has achieved many awards for his dedication towards the sport. He is a member of the commission evaluating new coaches and directs his own club, the Young Choung Taekwondo Academy where many members of the national team have trained.
His most recent visit to Havana was with Canadian Andrea St. Bernard who competes in the 67 kg division and is training to participate in the pre-Olympic trials. She has dual citizenship and hopes to represent her country of birth, Granada.
Master Choung is also working with Dasha Peregoudova, originally from Russia, and Bernard Lorde, from Barbados. He has told all of them that he will take care of them if they all happen to qualify for the Olympics.
"I am a citizen of the world, completely free. That is why I want to spread Tae Kwon Do all over the world. in both Granada and Barbados our proposal was positively welcomed since there are no resources to develop this sport. They prefer to first obtain medals and then promote the practice", says Master Choung.
Talking about Cuba, he told us: "They have made a lot of progress and it is amazing what they have done to be able to participate in international tournaments. You can see that hard and consistent work is being performed. They train very hard."
This opinion has served to strengthen the relationship between Master Choung and Cuba. Each year he brings some of his best pupils to the island.
Besides this, Master Choung personally financed the attendance of two Cuban athletes with their trainer at the Canadian Open Tournament and is thinking of adding another person for next year's event.
During our conversation we talked about the possible use of electronic sensors in helmets and trunk protectors (called hogu) to improve referees‘ decisions. Both Master Choung and Andrea showed their scepticism.
lt is an issue that has been discussed since the 1980's and has tested poorly in trials. Tae Kwon Do is an extremely tethnical sport and since there can’t be a device covering the competitor's faces, any hits there can‘t be counted electronically.
Regarding the present qualifying system for the Olympics, Master Choung was in total agreement since they provide many chances for countries with fewer opportunities to send athletes to the Olympics. He felt that it would be better if the International Olympic Committee could increase the number of competitors since there are many high quality athletes who are left out of the competitions.
Andrea has been coming to Cuba for two years and expressed her need to come to the island periodically. She likes the country and gets a lot from training with Cuban athletes. "It has been a great opportunity for me and has become an important part of my training. I train with everyone here. l take the best from all divisions and try all types of styles."
Andrea has a hard road ahead of her. She has to balance her work as a lawyer on Bay Street in Toronto with her love for the sport. "l work really hard and try to make the best of my time."
Tae Kwon Do is an ancient martial art and a modern combat sport. It is also the national sport of South Korea and a relatively new Olympic event. The meaning of its name can be loosely translated as the "Way of the Foot and the Fist."
The origins of Tae Kwon Do as a sport date back only to the late 1950's when the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association (KTA) was formed but its origins stretch back 5,000 years into Korea's history.
Tae Kwon Do has become popular around the world for the many facets of this art and sport. It is not just about learning how to fight but the training builds discipline that can contribute to the development of unity, peace, and harmony between the body and the soul. It also develops strength, flexibility, and explosive power.
As an Olympic event, Tae Kwon Do is one of two Asian martial arts, judo being the other, included in the competition.
In Cuba practice started in 1987 but the first competitive results arrived in the early 1990's when Roberto Abréu (64 kilograms) and Ilse Guilarte (68) won gold medals at the 1991 Pan American Games held in Havana.
The Cuban list of achievements continued among men with Roberto Abreu once again (68 kg), Arturo Utria (76 kg), and Saenz (above 80 kg) winning in Mar del Plata in 1995. Other Cuban athletes won silver and bronze medals at the same Pan American event.
Cuban women athletes have kept pace the men with Sonayls Mayan (60 kg) winning in 1995 and 1999, Yanet Puerto (43 kg) a silver medal in 1995, and Yanelis Labrada (49 kg) with a bronze medal in 1999 and gold in 2003.
At the Olympics, Cuba has seen positive results since it became an official medal event at the 2000 Sydney Games with a gold medal by Angel Volodia Matos (80kg) and a silver for Urbia Melendez (49 kg).
In the 2004 Games in Athens, Yanelis Labrada won a silver medal in the 49 kg division.
More recently at the Olympic qualifier held in Manchester, England, world champion Gesler Viera (68 kg) and Dianellis Montejo (49 kg) won silver medals and secured two spots for the 2008 Beijing Games. Angel Valodia Matos (B0 kg) was crowned at the qualifiers in Cali, Columbia, adding a third Cuban spot to the upcoming Olympics.