It’s a first chance for one, and a last chance for another.
Two Tucumcari residents are among five members of Eastern New Mexico Taekwon-Do squad that leaves Thursday for the country’s International Taekwon-Do Federation world qualifier in New Haven, Conn., on Saturday and Sunday.
The qualifier is open to any ITF black belt holder that feels able to compete against the country’s best.
“It’s going to be pretty tough competition,” said Steve Blakeley, the owner and senior instructor of ENMTKD, “but if they do what they can do, they’ll be fine.” Eastern New Mexico Taekwon-Do is part of the Yom Chi Taekwon-Do Association, one of four organizations at the qualifier. The five members representing ENMTKD are Mark Hardage and Joshua Bullard of Tucumcari, Nicole Frank and Audra Brown of Portales and Mark Yoesting of Clovis. The group will compete in several different events, including sparring, patterns, power breaking and specialty breaking. The top three finishers in each event will qualify for the ITF World Championships in Dijon, South Korea in October.
The group had its final workout Monday leading up to the weekend.
“We started out training on this about six, seven months ago. They’ve been going non-stop,” Blakeley said. “If anything’s going to pull them through, it’s going to be their experience.” The most experienced of the group is Hardage, who is a fourth-degree (or dan) black belt. Hardage, who teaches the Tucumcari branch of ENMTKD, plans to make the most of what could be his final chance to compete.
The bi-annual qualifier is open to fourth-degree black belts and below, and Hardage plans to test next year to be a fifth-degree black belt. “I’ve always wanted to compete on a world level,” said Hardage, who has been involved with the sport since 1984. “To me, this is one of my last opportunities to go compete at a level I’ve dreamed of competing at.”
While Hardage is probably eligible for the final time, Brown, 14, and Bullard,15, are eligible for their first. The two are entering in the junior division, which has a minimum age of 13. Bullard will be competing at the same events as his instructor, Hardage. “It’s fun because you can see what you’ve got on him,” Bullard said. “Then you get to brag if you beat him.” Bullard doesn’t really think he will be able to brag a week from now, however. The group is looking forward to the opportunity, and the chance to compete against other black belts. “The biggest thing is the experience,” Frank said. “I hope that each and every one of us will go in something. With the quality of our juniors and overall, we’ve got a great chance.”
Hardage has already made a two-decade investment to the sport, and doesn’t imagine he’ll leave the sport or his instructor (Blakeley) anytime soon. For the time being, he’s more than happy to teach a sport that he feels deserves just as much recognition as other team sports.
“You can do individual taekwon-do your entire life,” Hardage said, “and how many people can say they’ll play football all their life?”