Arkansas Ties to Taekwondo

Zoie Clift

When people think of martial arts, more than likely they are picturing
Taekwondo. The discipline comes from Korea and is considered the most popular
martial arts in the U.S. A main draw of the sport is the wide range of kicks
used. While some other martial arts include kicking techniques, Taekwondo’s
strength is founded in it. “When people see the different Jet Li or Jackie
Chan movies and they see all those kicks, the style that is generally going to
be able to teach them all that is Taekwondo,” said Senior Master Jay Kohl,
International Chairman of Tournaments and VP of Operations for the ATA
(American Taekwondo Association).

The ATA is the largest martial arts organization in the U.S. and is
internationally headquartered in Little Rock, which is also home to the World
Championships every year. Eternal Grand Master Haeng Ung Lee founded the
organization in 1969. Lee (who was born Manchuria, China) began teaching
Taekwondo in 1955 and opened a training school in Korea a few years later. He
came to the U.S. in the early 1960s and started teaching in Omaha, Nebraska.
After founding the ATA, he relocated headquarters to Little Rock in 1977.

So how was Arkansas chosen? “He did do a lot of traveling all across the
country as more and more schools were opening and he was researching where he
wanted to go and two things really seemed to be the points that stuck out for
him,” said Kohl, who has been with the ATA for 31 years. “When he came
to the Arkansas area he was really surprised by how similar to Korea the
geography was. So he felt at home here. The second thing was the warmth of the
people in this area. He was very drawn to it.”

What started with a handful of students in Omaha has grown to an organization
that now includes around 350,000 members worldwide and training schools across
the globe. “In the beginning in the late 60s when H.U. Lee came to this
country, he had a vision of spreading Taekwondo training not only across the
U.S. but the world,” said Kohl.

Kohl said the practice of martial arts has been steadily growing but the
demographics of those practicing the craft has changed over the years. When he
started the average martial artist was male and between the ages of 16-35. Now,
he says, the junior market is much larger than the adult group. He credits this
change to parents eager to instill their children with the discipline and self
confidence taught via martial arts. Self defense and the physical aspect of the
sport are key but Kohl says the practice involves much more and is a non
aggressive and ethical system of self defense. “People can start as young
as three or in their 60’s,” he said. “The essence especially that
Eternal Grand Master wanted to spread across the entire world is that martial
arts training is for anybody and it makes you a better person physically and
The training taught at ATA is known as Songahm Taekwondo and the practice has
an interesting tie to the state in that there is a symbolic Songahm Mountain
close to the 4-H Center in Ferndale. Songahm is a Korean word whose literal
translation is pine tree rock. “This is symbolic of the ATA and the style
of Taekwondo that we do,” said Kohl. “A pine tree is evergrowing. It
can grow anywhere, it doesn’t matter the geography or the climate and is green
all year round. So Grand Master picked that as symbolic of the student. A
student can come from anywhere and is constantly growing and learning. A rock
is the strength and the foundation. The organization is the foundation for the
student. The organization grows by its students and the students have the
strength of the foundation of the organization.”
Kohl said when the ATA started the form taught was a different system based on
Japanese martial arts that did not utilize the kicking beauty of Taekwondo. So
Grand Master Lee developed his own style: Songahm. According to Kohl, every
year there used to be a black belt camp held in Little Rock at Ferncliff.
“One morning of that camp in 1983 everybody was woken up around 4 in the
morning and told to put on their white uniforms,” said Kohl. “They
started climbed to top of the mountain not knowing what was happening. By the
time they got up there the sun was starting to rise and they could see there
was a cleared area for some sort of special ceremony. And it was at that time
that they did Songahm number 1 the white belt form for the very first time for
this group of instructors. So that mountain was then dubbed Songahm Mountain
ever since.”

With the passing of Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee in 2000, his wife Mrs. Sun C.
Lee (ATA’s Chairman of the Board) continues the legacy of her husband. The ATA
opened the H. U. Lee International Gate & Garden in downtown Little Rock
during the 2007 ATA World Championships. The South Korean structure honors the
ATA founder, salutes martial arts and serves as a symbol of friendship between
South Korea and the U.S. Lee, who was good friends with Little Rock Mayor Jim
Dailey, was instrumental in the city sister concept between Little Rock and
Hanam City, Korea. “He was a very personable man, had a huge heart and he
respected everybody,” said Kohl. “”He considered Arkansas his
home. He spread the word about Little Rock and Arkansas everywhere he
went.” This year Eternal Grand Master Lee was inducted into the Arkansas
Sports Hall of Fame.

“There are a lot of traditions in the ATA and in a lot of cultures
tradition is what brings and holds people together,” said Kohl.
“Eternal Grand Master recognized that and we have many traditions in the
ATA that are open for everybody to see and be part of in their martial arts
training journey.”
The 2011 Songahm Taekwondo World Championships are June 20-26 in Little Rock.
The ATA is located at 6210 Baseline Road in Little Rock. For more information
call 501-568-2821 or visit
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2 comments on “Arkansas Ties to Taekwondo
  1. Marie Trisollini says:

    Thank you for telling others about Grand Master and the ATA. I have been a student/instructor/school owner for 20 years and my life is much richer for it.

  2. Zoie Clift says:

    Thanks for the note Marie! We were very happy to help spread the news about Grand Master and the ATA-Take care!

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