Sang Cha was 6 years old when he first started taking lessons in Tae Kwon Do in his Korean homeland. That's not unusual; almost everybody studies Tae Kwon Do in Korea, where the martial art originated around two millennia ago, he said.
But Cha, 46 and a 17-time Korean national champion in Tae Kwon Do, is now a grand master who operates several schools where a technique that translates as "art of hand and foot combat" is taught.
Recently renamed to the "Lightning Tae Kwon Do Federation, National School of Excellence," one of the schools has been in Queen Anne for a year and a half, and Cha opened up a new one in Magnolia in December, he said.
Cha also helps run schools in Mukilteo, Missouri, Colorado, Alabama and France, where he was direc-tor of the Tae Kwon Do Association of Southern France in the 1980s.
Cha served as an advisor for the National Tae Kwon Do Association in that country as well, and he was the coach for the U.S. national team when they competed in the 1996 Pan Am Championship in Cuba.
A seventh-degree black belt, Cha started his first Puget Sound-area school in Federal Way in 1991, and one student who took private lessons from him earned a Gold Medal for Tae Kwon Do in the 1992 Olympics, he said.
The student was Barbara Kunkel. The average student takes two classes a week, and some take to the training more naturally than others, Cha said. But Kunkel was more dedicated than usual because she wanted to be on the Olympics team, he said.
"Barbara seven day, two year," Cha said of her training regimen. Kunkel has stuck with the sport, too. "She instructor master," he said of her position at his Colorado school.
Interest in martial arts has surged with the release of such films as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Drag-on," Cha said. "At that time, a lot of people love martial art," he smiled.
The interest has also gotten more organized. "This year we make championship, and the Korean ambassador come," Cha said of the First U.S. Annual Martial Arts Festival in 2005 at Edmonds Community College.
Tae Kwon Do is Korean, but "Crouching Tiger" featured kung fu because it was set in China, and karate originated in Japan. Cha refused to say which of the three styles he thought was better.
Masters of each style respect each other too much to make that kind of value judgment, he explained, while bringing up one difference among the three. "Only Tae Kwon Do official Olympic game."
Cha spends about half his time taking care of the business aspects of his schools and the rest teaching high-level students who are instructors at the schools.
Chris Scavone, a first-degree black belt, is a new instructor at the Queen Anne school and has been interested in the martial arts for quite some time. "I always wanted to get a black belt in something," he said.
Scavone said he tried different styles before settling on Tae Kwon Do, but he added that it's important to choose the right master. "Master Cha is a very special master," Scavone said. "He's just a good guy and has a good sense of humor."
Scavone added that he was especially impressed by the way Cha works with children, which make up roughly 70 percent of his students, Cha said.
Scavone, 37, has been training in Tae Kwon Do for almost two years, he said of a sport that takes focus and discipline. "But part of the value of Tae Kwon Do is it helps people get in shape."
Seattle Pacific University students can also get two credits for taking classes at his school, Cha said. His own training is on hold for the moment.
The highest degree - or dan, in Korean - for black belts in Tae Kwon Do is ninth. Cha said he would have to go to Korea to get his eighth dan, but the grand master simply doesn't have the time right now, he said.
Instead, Cha said he is focusing on opening more schools in Washington state and nationally. "I hope 20 schools in 30 years," he said.
Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 461-1309.