Comforted by Angels After a Martial Arts Match

His son was dejected after losing a big Taekwondo competition in Las Vegas. Then two strangers changed his perspective.

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Posted in , Feb 25, 2022

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

This was getting ugly. Inside a massive ballroom at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, my 14-year-old son, Andrew, was competing in his first match at the Taekwondo Nationals and getting pummeled. It was hard to watch.

He took a hard kick to the chest, stumbling backward. A second kick threw him to the mat. He struggled to stand, the air knocked out of him. I felt helpless from my seat near the edge of the mat. I wasn’t overly concerned about him getting physically hurt. The competitors wore padded vests and head gear. It was Andrew’s pride, his enthusiasm for this sport he loved, I worried might never recover.

“C’mon, Andrew,” I cheered under my breath. Spectators weren’t supposed to make noise so the contestants could hear their coaches. But I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. “You can do this!” I called out to him. I looked at the score. 20-0. My wife, Angie, was back in Michigan eagerly awaiting my text of the results. God, help my son out here, I prayed. He’s worked so hard for this.

He’d started Taekwondo when he was only 10 and taken to it immediately. It was the emphasis on kicking that attracted him, the athleticism. To him it was a way to express himself, like a dancer. Andrew chose a school that focused on personal achievement—mastering the increasingly more difficult moves and positions—rather than competition. It became his passion. He loved the emphasis on discipline and respect, the history of the sport and the work required to master each level. In four years he’d earned his black belt. I was so proud of him. Most of all I liked seeing his confidence and self-esteem grow as he progressed. Traits that would serve him well as he grew into a young man.

Shortly after he’d earned his black belt we moved to a new town and enrolled Andrew in a new Taekwondo school. This one focused on competition. Andrew was excited about the challenge. He was obviously talented. How different could it be?

The answer was playing out in front of me. Disoriented and desperate to slow the flurry of kicks, Andrew was clutching his opponent, a violation of the rules. The referee assessed a foul.

Andrew again wrapped his arms around his competitor, drawing another foul. Ten fouls and he’d be disqualified. He was already up to six.

Competition seemed like an entirely different sport from the one Andrew had trained for. The intricacies of mastering the ideal kick in isolation barely mattered. Strategy was key. Reacting. Everything happened at lightning speed. I saw now that experience was key.

Maybe I should have asked more questions before agreeing to let Andrew come to Nationals, a prestigious tournament that for top competitors can provide connections to elite coaches, sponsorships, even a pipeline to the Olympics. When his new coach told us about the possibility of competing at Nationals, Andrew was jazzed, despite having been in only one previous match.

The coach explained that with the number of entrants down due to Covid, the tournament wasn’t requiring competitors to have won a qualifying match this year. “It will be a great experience,” he said. “You’ll learn so much.”

“I feel like I have to do this,” Andrew told Angie and me. “I’ve worked so hard to get to this level. This could be huge for me.”

How could we say no? We’d encouraged all of our three children in their passions. I knew Andrew had trained hard and given it his best. And I had to admit I was excited about seeing him compete on such a grand stage.

Now I worried he was being humiliated. His dreams crushed. I’m a typical guy, a problem solver. With Andrew’s fouls mounting, I started thinking of ways I could boost his spirits after this was all over. Maybe take in a show? Go out for sushi, his favorite meal?

My mind raced for an answer as Andrew recorded his tenth foul. The match was over in only the second round. The final score: 42-2. Andrew shuffled off the mat, shoulders slumped, head bowed. His coach gave him a hug and so did I. “It’s just one match,” I said. “You’ll do better next time.” Andrew shrugged, refusing to make eye contact. It seemed there was nothing I could say or do to make him feel any better. I helped him remove his gear, a crush of bodies around us as the next competitors prepared to take the mat. Andrew pulled away.

“I just want to be alone,” he said. I understood, but my heart ached for him. He slunk away from the crowd.

I texted Angie to ask for advice: “Andrew lost bad. I don’t know what to do for him.”

Angie texted back: “Just tell him you love him. I’ll say a prayer.”

Honestly, I was hoping for something more. I went to Andrew and convinced him to go get a bite to eat. We went to the hotel’s massive food court, the lines of people stretching on forever. Just getting a view of the menu boards was a challenge. It didn’t help that two hulky, bodybuilder types were nearly pressing up against us, just inches away. Give us some space, I wanted to tell them, but thought better of it.

“Can we just go get some sushi?” Andrew said.

“Absolutely,” I said. “Great idea.” The sushi restaurant was in an entirely different wing of the hotel, at least a half mile away. Andrew barely said a word on our walk over.

We sat at the sushi bar and ordered. We stared at our phones, the minutes seeming like hours. Until our food came. Andrew looked to his left and my eyes followed his. The two hulky men from the food court were sitting next to Andrew. They seemed to have come out of nowhere.

I looked at them closer. They looked like models, chiseled, toned physiques. Well over six feet tall. Massive biceps that seemed they might burst through the T-shirts they were wearing. Their hair was stylishly cut. I couldn’t help but stare. Were they following us?

“Dude, did you fight today?” the man sitting closest to Andrew asked.

“What?” Andrew said, surprised at the question. He was wearing his street clothes, with no hint of him even being interested in Taekwondo.

“Did you fight in the tournament?” the man repeated, but with more intensity, as if he was seriously interested in the answer.

“Yeah,” Andrew said glumly. “I got whooped.”

“But was it fun?” the man asked, his eyes peering into Andrew’s.

I watched in amazement as Andrew’s face went from dejected to almost gleeful. “Kinda!” Andrew said, his whole body becoming animated now.

“What happened? No, let me guess,” the man said. “You got on the mat and everything started spinning. You couldn’t hear anything. Could barely see the guy you were fighting.”

“That’s exactly what happened,” Andrew said. “How did you know?”

“Dude, it happens to all of us,” he said. “It’s so disorienting the first few times. You just have to keep at it until you get comfortable.”

Andrew was fully engaged now. “Are you two fighters?” he asked.

Now the second man responded. “We train with UFC mixed martial arts fighters. We practice Jiu-Jitsu. Our coach is in a big match tomorrow so we’re here to cheer him on.”

They took out their phones and showed Andrew pictures of their worldwide travels, their training and matches, victories and defeats. They were totally focused on Andrew. They treated him like he was an equal. They were there for him in a way I couldn’t possibly be. Like angels on a divine mission.

“Here’s the thing,” the man closest to Andrew said. “It’s okay to lose, even badly. You learn far more in losing than in winning. The most important thing is to have fun.”

Andrew focused on every word. We’d long finished eating. People were waiting for our seats. We thanked the men and got up to leave. “You two are godsends,” I said. “You have no idea.”

I texted Angie on the way back to our hotel room. Andrew’s feet barely touched the carpeted floors. “I can’t wait to start training for my next match,” he said.

This time I knew exactly what to say. “Now we know you’ve definitely got some big guys in your corner.”

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