Welcome to The Ring.
Lights were brightly shining in the elementary school gymnasium as a line of men and women approached the circular stage. The contestants were drenched with sweat as they looked on at what they never made it to – the final round of this sparring competition.
Surrounded by classmates and instructors, I stood facing my opponent in the final round of my third big Tae Kwon Do fighting ring. I had worked hard to get there. I glanced at the sweaty faces all around me. I had defeated every last one of them that night. I probably looked far worse than they did at this point, too.
My muscles ached and my hair was wet from the perspiration. My opponent’s jaw was tight and his eyes dark. He was ready to fight and I was beginning to feel quite intimidated. I knew this boy’s background. He was my age, tall, skinny, and muscular. I had watched him many times in class as he demonstrated his lightning-fast defense skills. I may have brought myself to the final round, but they certainly saved their best for last. The boy stood straight with his fists in the ready position. I breathed deeply in through my nose and out through my mouth, as my trainers had taught me. My eyes closed as I mentally prepared myself for what I had to do. I did not spend three years in practice only to lose this fight.
The black-belt instructors asked us if we were ready. We both nodded in acknowledgement. You can do it, Rissa.
I raised my fists to the ready position and corrected my stance. I had been the ring champion up until this point, so it was I who called the session to start. I looked into my opponent’s eyes and muttered “Okay.”
A punch was thrown and I dodged to the side. Raising my left forearm in a defensive block, his hand slid across and away from my face. I jumped back into the ready position. Every second seemed to take longer than it should. I was filled with adrenaline. I could feel it pulsing through my body.
The boy kept his knees moving as he shifted weight from side to side in our match. His method of distraction proved effective, but I knew his strategy. I copied him to counter his offensive trick. I knew not to watch his body too closely. We were trained to watch only the eyes. If your opponent wants to hit you, his eyes will first target that area. My blue eyes pierced his. His eye darted towards my left side. In a split second, his fist was flying toward my rib cage. But I had followed his eyes. My left hand dropped and caught his fist. I took advantage of his extended arm to throw in my own punch at his chest. With a sweep of his forearm, he blocked my fist and jumped back. Momentum yanked me slightly forward. He saw this, no doubt. He tensed and threw a fist towards my face. We were not allowed to strike the face, but if an attempt was made and stopped within three inches of the nose, it was considered a point. I dodged the thrust to my face and dropped low. I threw a punch to his abdomen. I missed. He repositioned his body as I regained balance.
It was clear we both had the same amount of knowledge and training. Our fight was composed of very little offense so far, but we were already exhausted. We were paying close attention to how we controlled our own bodies. We both wanted to win. Badly.
A muscle in my back strained as I began to feel the effects of fighting so many others before this round. Was it really worth this? Absolutely.
My opponent and I began to exchange a few more punches and hard blocks. We slowed to take deep breaths. We were getting very tired. I took advantage of the moment and thought back to my training. My instructors had covered all the bases with me. I heard their advice echo in my head.
When a punch doesn’t work, try a kick.
That was my answer. If I was to get a point in on this guy, a kick was going to get the job done. I decided that the best form of this offensive move was the Side Kick. But I needed to time it right. The Side Kick was a full turn of the body and a full-force kick, straightening the leg out behind your body. I had practiced it many times, but I was up against greased lightning. I had to find a good way to do this.
Fake him out.
My instincts told me to add a form of distraction. But I had to do it at the same time as my kick. That was the tricky part. I decided on a punch-kick combination. But I would only follow through on the kick. It was my only chance at a point. I had it all decided. I would begin to throw a left-handed punch and a right-leg Side Kick. One side of my body would directly counter the other. It was a difficult move. I had to move swiftly or I would lose the round. A move like this would either give me the victory or leave me extremely exposed. And my opponent was too good. He would surely sneak his point in if I gave him the slightest chance.
Knowing that he also studied my eye movements, I glanced at his right knee in distraction, then allowed my eyes to quickly scan his torso as I brought them back to meet his gaze. I found my target. His right side. His elbow protected it, but if my left punch distraction worked, it would leave that side fully exposed. I jumped slightly forward, trying to make him think I would follow through on where I let my eyes land. It was a fake and his eyes turned even darker when he realized what I had done.
This was my chance. I had half of a second to decide and the other half of a second to commit. As our eyes held a constant gaze, I slowly shifted my stance to be able to effectively throw my Side Kick. Then, it was time to act. I threw my left fist at his face while turning my body 180 degrees. I allowed the speed of my body’s turn to throw momentum out through my leg and at his side. I felt a harsh hit. But it wasn’t my foot against his side. It was a fist against me. Greased-lightning had slammed his fist directly into my extended leg. He hammered my knee as it was half-turned for the kick. I heard a faint snap and felt an extremely painful jolt shoot up my leg.
I screamed and fell backwards to the floor. All went black.
When I opened my eyes, the ring of competitors were around me, staring as if I was a newborn baby. I picked myself up but immediately fell to my knees. What is wrong with me?
My instructor grabbed my arm and helped me to the sideline. I must have been seriously hurt. I didn’t see clearly. I could barely tell him the spot that hurt when he asked where he should place the ice pack.
I watched as my instructor left me and ran to the front of the gymnasium. He called the match to an end. “Well done, everyone!” was the announcement. That was all. I must have lost. I watched as my opponent took his place on the front line of Tae Kwon Do students lining up to say goodnight in Korean. I rested my head back on the padded wall and spoke the foreign words with my classmates. A final bow was made to the instructor and the group quickly ran to the showers. I sat alone by the wall littered with sparring gear.
My instructor and the lead student came back into the room and knelt by me. “We called your parents and they are coming here now to bring you to the hospital.”
These two men waited patiently with me until my parents emerged from the doorway. They hurried to get me to my feet and rush me out the door. My instructor followed me and grabbed my by the arm. “Wait!” he shouted.
“I want you to know that you won.”
I looked at him in confusion. I couldn’t have won. I was hurt on the attempt.
My instructor looked at me with pride in his eyes.
“Your kick made the point.”
In that moment, I felt an overwhelming sensation come over me. As I limped to the car that drove me to the emergency room, I replayed the events through my head. It all would have made sense if I had lost. But I didn’t. In the small moment of following through with my kick, I tagged the point, but was hurt as well. I had won, but it cost me. But somehow, I was proud. I learned to follow the advice of wise instructors that earned me the victory.
As I write this account from six years ago, I sit on my couch applying heat to a knee that is permanently damaged due to this victorious incident. I recently suffered a sprain to this very same knee. But instead of dwelling on the pain, I remember the day it was made so susceptible to injury. I remember the reason I received such a devastating blow to my body. It was not because of an intense desire to be a winner. It did not come from all the adrenaline. It came as a result of doing what I was told and trained to do. The injury was an accident, but the unexpected victory was worth the experience. And after the news of my success in the match, not even the pain of my injury could quench the amazing feeling of pride and joy that I felt. To this day I am reminded that even in life’s hard times, there is always something behind it that will remind you of the good that can come of it. I am encouraged to simply go and do that which I am enabled to do, no matter what the cost.
To continue on with my injury, I have continually kept myself a student. I have sought to learn what it means to endure pain and embrace strength. Real, powerful strength. And I have been the recipient of more strength than I am equipped with on my own. This strength has given me the drive to see my job through to completion, to push myself farther, and to stay on my feet when I have nothing left to depend on. This strength comes from God. He has been my strength all my life. He has been the ultimate source of true success.
Looking to the future, it does not matter if I have a physical condition that limits me. I have a source of strength in a God that loves me and will take me as far as He wants me to go. He will empower me, strengthen me, love me, and never leave my side.
The Lord has brought me to a point in life. He has empowered and enabled me to become who I am today. Wherever He chooses to lead me from this day on, I am confident in trusting that He can provide every victory – expected or unexpected – even in the face of hardship. And I promise one thing: It is always worth the experience.
Psalm 18:32 (KJV)
It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect.