By JOE TOROK
The Lansing area may boast few worldclass athletes, but in the martial art of taekwondo, a master lives among us. Ron Southwick, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University and faculty advisor and coach of MSU´s Taekwondo club, represented the United States in the third annual World Taekwondo Federation Poomsae Championships in Ankara, Turkey. Poomsae is a type of individual, non-contact taekwondo, in which judges score competitors based on the form and technique of a series of traditional routines.
The United States entered 22 competitors in the tournament. Kimberly Fritzsche, a member of the MSU club, also made the trip to Turkey after being called up as an alternate after the primary dropped out due to injury at the last minute.
Southwick, who competed in his first national level event in 1984, prepared for nearly eight months for the competition.
"It doesn´t really come down to the physical part, as much as it comes down to mental preparations,” says Southwick of becoming one the best in the world. “You have 10 to 15 years of physical training, so that mentaltraining that you´re getting really pays off in the end." Southwick had a goal going into the competition of not getting overwhelmed by the experience, to take it like any other tournament he has participated in. "It´s all about striking a balance," he says. "Martial arts lends itself to that — we try to keep our minds clean our body strong and our spirits high." The two-day competition ended Dec. 18. Southwick and his American team advanced to the final round, where they finished seventh out of eight. "The United States is pretty outclassed by the Europeans and the Asian countries, but our (threeman) team did really well," he says. But success on the mat is not what Southwick will carry with him for the rest of his life. During the opening ceremonies, Southwick was one of two Americans selected by teammates to represent the country on the main floor.
The Americans stood right next to the Iranians, a combination unthinkable in some of the more reactionary political realms. The Iranian team is one of the best in the world — it finished second over all and won a gold in Southwick´s 31 to 40-year old age group. Southwick spotted one of the Iranian athletes he would compete against during the opening ceremony.
"I looked over at him, he looked at me and we kind of locked eyes," said Southwick on the phone from New York, where he was stranded due to snowstorms. "For some reason, there was a connection there, I just can’t explain it." Southwick later approached the Iranian and offered an MSU pin as a gift. They couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other, but both used hand signals to foster a fleeting friendship. The men encountered each other sporadically during the event, communicating as best they could, then they shared a special moment during the closing ceremonies. "On the last day we were all saying goodbye to each other, and the Iranian team came up to us, and the one guy, the only thing he said to me in broken English, he said, ´I really love you,’” Southwick said. "When he did that, all his other teammates came up, and with my teammates, they took their gold medals off and put them on us. We had our flag and they had their flag, and we switched flags and their team held up the American flag, and our team held up the Iranian flag and we stood next to each other and it really was the most wonderful experience." (The MSU Taikwondo Club is open to any member of the MSU community who completes an introductory taekwondo course. The club meets 5- 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday in room 150 of IM West.)