Seven women cluster at the edge of the sparring ring. Some are more nervous than others but the heightened chatter, anxious laughs and exaggerated body movements suggest that even the coolest among them are apprehensive about their upcoming bouts. It’s a cool day, but the dojang is bright and the vibrant red and blue of the sparring ring’s mats makes it feel oddly festive. And why shouldn’t it? Tournaments are a celebration of the years of work that have preceded them.

This group of women range from their early twenties to their early fifties and though some have known each other for more than twenty years and others have shared the intense journey through the ranks together, most have never met in the competition ring as opponents. Those recently minted in their jet-black belts with startling gold embroidery, collectively downplay their chances of victory against the more seasoned competitors. To the right of the women’s ring, the men’s sparring is in full swing but at this point the cheering and clapping is just background noise.

The first two competitors step onto the mat, bow to the jury president, bow to the referee and to each other, then adopt the guarding stance that signals they are prepared to spar. The referee says “Sijak!” and the timer begins.

One round. Three minutes.

Three minutes is an interminably long time when someone is trying to punch and kick you in the face, no matter how much you like them. Three minutes is relentless when you are pushing, dodging, running, kicking and punching your way around an enclosed space.

The competitors circle each other, throwing test punches and kicks that miss. They tease their opponent, feinting and dodging so as to test distance and speed, courage and resolve. But as the three minutes become two then one, more blows land and the women’s movements become hurried and urgent. A judge sits on each corner counting points: one for a punch, two for a kick to the body, three for that all-elusive kick to the head. In the dying second of the bout the competitors breathe heavily as their fast footwork slows, and their arms begin to drop from fatigue. They are cheered on from the sidelines: Guard-up! Side-kick! Again, again! Keep going!

The winner is announced.

Relief, surprise, disappointment.

The women smile, shake hands and, more often than not, hug.

At the end of all the bouts there are two tie-breaks. The first is the expected re-match between the two-most senior and two most-experienced competitors for the gold and silver medals. The second, however, is between the youngest and the eldest competitors whose ages are separated by almost thirty years.

The two women step onto the mat, bow-in and prepare to fight. Behind them, the other women discuss tactics. The youngest competitor has all the advantages—speed, fitness, flexibility, rank, and experience. The older competitor has a strength and height advantage.

Sijak.

The young black-belt starts fast, trying to gain a points advantage straight away. The elder refuses to be intimidated. She guards well and presses forward, shutting down the space and the effectiveness of the young black-belt’s legs. The elder competitor knows what she needs to do. She needs to be more aggressive, more attacking and push the younger girl out of the ring. Over and over she pushes forward, despite the younger girl’s speed and flexibility. Three steps out and you lose a point. Nine steps out, you lose three.

So much about competitive sparring is in the mind. It is in the ability to control your temper, your fear and your determination. It is about grit. The elder competitor’s tactics frustrate the younger girl and the bout is lost, not on a lack of ability, but because she underestimated the power of determination and control. Because the older woman played her own strengths rather than trying to better her partner’s.

As the winner’s hand is raised by the centre referee, the women at the back of the mat cheer in collective delight for what the win symbolises.

We are still in this. We, as mothers and women over forty are still totally kick-ass.

With the fighting over, the chatter is light and the smiles wide. Each blow is recounted: You were so awesome. That hit was incredible. How did you land that? Sorry that kick was a bit heavy.

I love these women. They are awesome. Clear and simple. But they aren’t awesome because they are young and spend tonnes of hours in the gym. They aren’t awesome because they are world champions, or professional athletes. They are awesome because they do it and they do it because they can. They do it because they are supported, nurtured, encouraged and above all valued.

Is taekwon-do a feminist sport? I think so because taekwon-do doesn’t discriminate against gender, age or ability. It is a pursuit wholly about your own journey and your own mindset that you get to share with a huge extended family.

 

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