Hwang’s Martial Arts teaches discipline, self-confidence and respect on the mat

Hwang’s Martial Arts’ World Taekwondo Championship will be held Saturday, Oct. 20. | Courtesy of Hwang’s Martial Arts

On Saturday, Oct. 20, the parents and children of Hwang’s Martial Arts will participate in the 32nd annual World Taekwondo Championship at Broadbent Arena. The tournament will feature schools from around the country and a few coming from as far away as Bermuda and Peru.

It’s a family-friendly event that Master Mimi Hwang hopes will help to educate the public about martial arts.

“Media has created kind of this stigma of what martial arts is like,” Hwang tells Insider. “It’s either comical or it’s extremely violent, and there’s never been anything in between that really talks about the core beliefs and values we have. I’ll walk in somewhere and they’ll be like, ‘What do you do?’ They will come out in this crazy crane stance that I’ve never taught anyone in my life, or they will say, ‘Don’t kick my butt.’”

Mimi Hwang

Hwang’s, pronounced Wong’s, is something of a local staple as one of the largest, if not the largest, martial arts academies in Louisville, with three campuses and hundreds of kids and adults on the mats each night of the week.

Taekwondo, which is Hwang’s main focus, is a Korean martial art that emphasizes striking and kicking as a means of self-defense. The study of taekwondo involves more than learning the techniques. It is both an education of self-defense and one of ethical values like discipline, respect, confidence and etiquette.

“I’ll read stuff that says, ‘Hwang’s is not a true martial arts school,’ ” says Hwang. “Ours is catered to where everybody can do it. We’re not trying to build Olympic champions in this sport. We’re trying to bring taekwondo so that it reaches as many people as possible.”

She explains that the school hopes to add more intensive courses in the future for those students who have sights on more full-contact sparring and practice.

“A lot of schools do headshots and full-contact. Ours is really light contact and no headshots,” she says. “The majority of parents I talk to didn’t want their kids to get kicked in the head for safety reasons. It takes a special personality and culture of a school to get used to and to train that way.”

The school’s motto reflects its family-friendly focus: “The family that kicks together sticks together.” Many parents enroll their children in martial arts with no idea that they could participate and learn alongside them.

That is, until a member of the Hwang’s family or staff invites them to the mat.

“Everything that we are teaching in these schools is that, yes, technique is important, but I think the long-lasting effects of taekwondo training are those life skills you want your child and yourself to learn just to make our world, our community, good,” says Hwang.

A scene from last year’s World Taekwondo Championship | Courtesy of Hwang’s Martial Arts

Families participating in Saturday’s tournament have similar stories about the value Hwang’s has brought to their lives. Jennifer and Chris Hadlock started taekwondo the way many other families do — by signing up their son Jackson.

They were looking for a summer camp for Jackson, and someone recommended they check out Hwang’s. Jennifer Hadlock called to check on the camp, and though she wasn’t sure how Jackson would feel about it, she was surprised when a staff member offered her free lessons so that her son could test the program before she signed him up.

“We did that, and he loved it. We immediately signed up,” she says. Shortly after, as is the Hwang’s custom, she was invited onto the mat to join him. “I found it interesting and thought, ‘That looks kind of fun.’ He’s having a good time. Then I dragged my husband in, too.”

Hwang’s teaches children as young as 2. | Courtesy of Hwang’s Martial Arts

For the Hadlocks, the time on the mat has helped them through some sticky situations. They credit taekwondo training with improving their family dynamics.

“It really has taught my son how to be respectful toward folks,” says Chris Hadlock. “I have a stressful job, and it just takes away all of that as well. It gives us something common to do as a family. It’s enjoyable, and it’s helped us with the personal internal struggles.”

Jennifer agrees. She’s found that being involved with the Hwang’s family and being surrounded by her own has really boosted her confidence and ability to follow through.

“I’m 46 years old and 5-foot-3 — when you’re preparing for your black belt test, it can be a little intimidating to see these younger students have the abilities they have, and you wonder, ‘Will I ever be at that level?’ ” she says.

One of the tests before achieving black belt status is to break a brick.

“I watched all these other much smaller people breaking their bricks before me. I get up there and I start, and it doesn’t break. I try again and it doesn’t break. Here I am in front of everyone, and they’re watching,” recalls Jennifer. “They told me to take a break and then brought me back up again, and I broke it that third time. That brick meant a lot about self-confidence and following through.”

The Hadlocks’ story is a common one in the Hwang’s Martial Arts world.

The Semenick family has six members enrolled at Hwang’s. Max Semenick, a community pastor with Southeast Christian Church, and his wife, Sara, were trying to find an outlet for their three sons — Gabe, Luke and Beau, who are all between 5 and 8 years old.

“I think we tried several other sports. Generally, one of our boys would really like it, and one or two of the others wouldn’t, or they’d be on different teams. Then you’re running all over the place,” says Semenick. “We were watching things character-wise and personality-wise, arguments between them — just things where we knew a martial arts environment would be really helpful.”

Semenick can’t recall why his family first decided to try out Hwang’s, but he thinks it was proximity. They used to live near the Jeffersontown campus on Hurstbourne near Stonybrook.

“We took the boys to the trial lessons, and Robert Sa Bum Nimwas their instructor,” said Semenick. “He just does an incredible job with the kids. He just gets them excited and engaged really quickly.”

Soon after the boys started, Semenick somewhat reluctantly joined his sons on the mat and found that he loved it. They’ve since recruited the kids’ grandfather and a cousin. All will be participating in Saturday’s tournament.

The World Taekwondo Championship will include competitions in form, breaking, sparring and weapons. Students are traveling to Louisville from several states, including Missouri, Ohio, Alaska and New York.

Saturday’s tournament will feature both children and adults. | Courtesy of Hwang’s Martial Arts

Some of these schools have been coming to join the Hwang family’s tournament for many years.

Master Greg Dickerson, owner of World Martial Arts Academy in Hazelwood, Mo., has been coming to Louisville since he was a young teen. He’s now 29 and has his own taekwondo students.

“I’ve been going since I was 12 or 13,” he recalls. “I think martial arts are super important for anyone to do because it raises confidence. The community dynamics and training help build that.”

Dickerson has brought along his students for the entire time he’s owned his own academy — which is going on eight years.

“It’s a four- or five-hour drive for us, so we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t so great,” he says. “My favorite part, I would say, is the atmosphere. They really have a positive vibe and attitude. There’s some good competitive stuff going on, and it’s just so exciting. It’s like a big family.”

The World Taekwondo Championship takes place on Saturday, Oct. 20, at Broadbent Arena. Black belt competitions start at 9 a.m., and the official opening ceremony begins at 12:45 p.m. Color belt competitions take place at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Broadbent Arena is located at the Kentucky Expo Center.