Grandmaster M.K. Kim sat silently at a long, dark-blue table at the US-K Martial Arts center in Ballantyne.
Flanked by two other school judges, Kim held a stone-faced expression for more than three hours while watching eight local martial-arts students spar using kicks, punches and various attacks.
As the candidates stood dripping in sweat and aching from the physical toll, Kim finally cracked a smile before declaring that Fort Mill residents Kasie Nugent, Braden Mize and Cayla Cain had passed their black belt tests.
“You remember this for your whole life,” he told the students. “This is not just for here, this is for your life outside of here. … Today I’m very proud, watching you do this.”
After several years of training several times a week, Springfield Middle School students Kasie, Braden and Cayla will receive their black belts in a graduation ceremony in September.
During the April 12 tests, the students had to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of postures, positions, manners and maneuvers learned over the years. The students practiced tang soo do, a Korean martial art of self-defense, character development and communication meant to connect students with life skills.
Kasie, 13, has worked at US-K’s Fort Mill center since it opened four-and-a-half years ago and continues to teach younger students.
She says her experience has made her more confident at school and at home.
“I used to not feel confident in class if I had to present something,” she said. “But in tournaments, you have to compete in front of a whole gymnasium, with hundreds of people there. If I can do it there, I can do it anywhere.”
Braden says his four years of dedication have allowed him to stand up to bullies in school. The 11-year-old is 4-feet-6-inches tall but seems a lot taller when he thinks about how he’ll tell his friends that he’s now a black belt.
“Learning all the new things that I can do, the knowledge and responsibility of self-defense, it’s taught me to stand up for myself,” he said.
Kim’s two daughters, Jenny and Amy, typically administer the test, but the grandmaster said he was fit to help out, after a recent hip surgery. With a laundry list of possible punching and kicking techniques, Jenny says her father is a “wild card” for students on test day.
“He’s liable to throw out a wild card, so we tell these kids, ‘You better practice everything,’ ” she said. “They’re tested on material from beginning to end, four to six years worth of work in one day.
“It’s exciting, but frightening.”
Still catching her breath after she and fellow students passed, Cayla said she couldn’t agree more. After four years of practice and devotion, Cain knew that she had to show everything she knew.
Today, Cayla nailed it.
Her thoughts on her own performance?
“I’d say a 10,” she said, smiling. “It’s the best I could have done.”