New black belts share pursuit of discipline, respect

November 27, 2013

By Neil Pierson

When Skyler Zoppi first started administering black-belt tests at his True Martial Arts studio in Sammamish, he was promoting only one or two students per year.

The studio’s growth over the last 18 years, however, has been exponential, and the studio now holds three black-belt tests each year, with anywhere from five to 10 students participating each time.

True Martial Arts promoted seven Taekwondo students to black-belt ranks in November. The students are Chris Clark, Shruti Karanth, Arghya Kannadaguli, Jeff Kenney, Declen Oberst, Neel Sahay and Luke Sala.   Photo contributed by Skylar Zoppi

True Martial Arts promoted seven Taekwondo students to black-belt ranks in November. The students are Chris Clark, Shruti Karanth, Arghya Kannadaguli, Jeff Kenney, Declen Oberst, Neel Sahay and Luke Sala. Photo contributed by Skylar Zoppi

True Martial Arts promoted seven more Taekwondo students to its black-belt ranks Nov. 13. Five of them – Chris Clark of Eastlake High School; Shruti Karanth, Declen Oberst and Arghya Kannadaguli of Skyline High; and Neel Sahay of Beaver Lake Middle School – are area students and have been training for the elite rank for at least eight years.

“It’s just a really cool deal for them, because they started when they were really young,” said Zoppi, a fourth-degree black belt who serves as the studio’s co-owner and chief instructor.

Zoppi’s parents, Thomas and Laurel, opened their first martial arts studio in Bellevue in 1982. Thomas Zoppi spent time in Los Angeles training with Remy Presas, a Black Belt Hall of Famer “who was basically the man who brought Arnis to the United States,” Skyler Zoppi said.

Arnis is a Filipino martial art known as a “soft style,” meaning students move or redirect forces rather than engage them head-on. And it’s been an integral part of the curriculum for TMA students, who must learn both Arnis and the “hard style” Taekwondo to move up the ranks.

It’s pretty standard for students to take eight years or more to earn their first-degree black belt. At TMA, students can’t achieve it until they are 13.

“That’s when we feel people are mature enough to understand some of the concepts that we’re teaching, and also more physically mature and able to handle themselves,” Zoppi said.

The details of the black-belt exam itself are “top-secret,” said Sahay, an eighth-grader at Beaver Lake, who began his Taekwondo training when he was 5.

“I can’t tell you what we did, but I can say that it was really, really tough,” Sahay said.

Clark, who said he eschewed traditional sports like football and baseball in favor of martial arts, was TMA’s lone student to earn a second-degree black belt this month.

“It was definitely the hardest moment of my life,” said Clark, an Eastlake senior. “It was intense.”

Kannadaguli, a freshman at Skyline, began training in kindergarten and said Taekwondo became an increasingly large part of her life as she grew older. Although she has tried other sports, she wouldn’t give it up for anything.

“I feel like (passing the black-belt test) was kind of like a symbol that now I’m worthy of having this black belt,” she said. “It’s like a passing into the elite.”

The students say their training begins with three key building blocks – leadership, self-confidence and respect.

“And without those three things … I wouldn’t be as good of a person,” Sahay said. “This definitely helps me as far as being kinder and being more respectful, and also just being smarter when it comes to a lot of different decisions that I have to make.”

Clark said it’s not uncommon for younger students to instruct their older peers.

“We respect our higher ranks because we’ve been doing it longer – simple enough,” he said. “And since we promote character and leadership, yes, some of these people may be middle-schoolers, yet they’re very mature, especially for their age.”

Kannadaguli thinks the discipline she’s learned in Taekwondo has seeped into other aspects of her life, such as her schoolwork, and she’s much less afraid to confront challenges.

“Martial arts (are) so important to me, and once you get started, it sort of changes you as a person,” she said. “You become more disciplined, and it certainly helps with willpower and commitment.”

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