Grandmaster Hee Il Cho - a name in the martial arts community that does not go unacknowledged. Grandmaster Cho is someone who truly lives his art, he is a walking, breathing inspiration to people of every age and gender. Coming to the USA in his late 20s knowing no English and having barley enough money to catch a cab ride, Grandmaster Cho is today able to laugh in the face of every person who doubted his success. His accomplishments, in addition to his lightning speed overhead cross and footwork, drop the mouths of martial artist and lay-men alike. Author of 11 books, producer of over 70 instructional videos, champion of over 30 national and international open competitions, and featured on nearly 70 martial art magazine covers, even appearing on Hollywood's silver screen, his whole aura demands respect and admiration. I recently had the chance to interview the living legend and venture into his life more personally.
Mark Guest: What was it like training in Korea in the early days?
GC: I was born in a time of post war poverty and martial art was not very popular at this time. Hence, martial arts schools were scarce. I believe it may have been my destiny but there just happened to be a Tae Kwon Do school in my neighborhood. It was so long ago that I don't have any clear memories, other than it being so cold and physically demanding.
How much has Taekwondo changed, since then?
The changes are historical. The training methods in the past are far more primitive than they are today. I remember I used to tie cement blocks together with wood and rope to serve as weight lifting equipment. With the participation of Tae Kwon Do in the Olympics, you can see how techniques are ostentatious in terms of speed, jumping, etc. In the past Tae Kwon Do has never geared toward such acrobatics but rather strength conditioning. We were expected to build callused hands and feet for endurance - the training was extreme.
You served in the forces, could you explain more on this?
I first taught the American soldiers who were stationed in Korea. As a progressing master, I was expected to complete some kind of special training. This included the time when I taught the Special Forces in India, probably around the mid 1960s.
When did you arrive in the USA?
I worked for masters in Chicago, Illinois and South Bend, Indiana before opening my first school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. All I remember is hardships, hardships, and hardships. It was truly a time of extreme mental and physical conditioning by force. I honestly could not focus on what I taught, rather I was pushed to always think of how to survive. I know absolutely nothing in terms of business, language, culture, - on top of everything I was poorer than poor. I guess I am still ironically thankful to those unbearable times because they made me push harder than anything. Eventually, I moved toward the East coast and was very successful, operating 5 to 6 schools in Rhode Island. Wanting to expand more, I moved to Los Angeles, California and taught there for nearly 25 years or more. (Grandmaster Cho is presently operating his school in Albuquerque, New Mexico.)
Did you compete in the American tournament circuits?
Yes. Competing was actually very important to me because I saw it as an opportunity. As I mentioned before, I was poorer than poor and was determined to free myself from the chains of circumstance. I felt the need to establish my name, to explore all styles of martial arts as well. America was very accepting toward open tournaments, so there were ideal opportunities for me to tackle different martial arts head on.
Do you think it is important to compete as a student?
I think competing is crucial to martial arts students. I continued to compete with the status of a master. Competing builds both physical and mental acuteness. It is another opportunity for expanding your knowledge to great lengths. You will never know how good you can be at something until you explicitly place yourself in the situation.
You have travelled the world teaching seminars. When did you first visit Great Britain and what was your opinion of the British martial arts?
I believe it was the 1980s when I first visited Great Britain. They were definitely hardcore in terms of dedication to their master. They were very traditional in their arts, which in a way prohibited them from exploring other styles or environments. They seemed so loyal to their instructor that was exploring other arts, etc. would be considered complete disrespect. Then gradually they began to compete in the American open circuits and their progression has been phenomenal.
What do you think are the most important qualities in a student achieving their black belt?
The martial arts are spiritual arts that demand some physical conditioning. The emphasis of the growth one's character far outstands the importance of physical achievement. A black belt should continue to mature terms of patience, integrity, self control, respect, filial etc. All these principles are the cornerstones of any martial art. Being able to spin 3 times in the air won't help you in life - learning how to be a flexible person will.
Do you think weight training will benefit your Tae Kwon Do training?
Without a question, yes. I have been weight training for the past 40 years and it has not only enhanced my Tae Kwon Do training but my overall health and fitness. If you look at my most recent photo in this issue and see that you can still attain a good physique in your 60s. I call weight training the fountain of youth, combined with tae Kwon Do there is no other way to improve overall health and vitality. Weight training will definitely help in building muscle endurance and strength. However, weight training for martial arts should not focus on becoming buff but toned. Tae Kwon Do demands speed, balance and power. Becoming too bulky may hinder a student from meeting these demands.
Tae Kwon Do is known mainly as a kicking art. Do you think it is important to cross train with boxing?
I have trained in boxing myself and it is quite beneficial. However, I want to stress that a complete martial artist is not one who has trained sporadically in 20 different styles. There should be a dedication to ones art to some degree. Boxing, grappling, etc. focus on certain techniques that Tae Kwon Do might lack and so it can be helpful in equipping a student with a more tactical approach to real life situations. Training in different martial arts or styles should be kept as a side to your main direction.
Can Tae Kwon Do be used in realistic street self-defense?
Tae Kwon Do does teach self-defense through means of stimulation by one-step sparring etc. The mental demands, such as breaking or sparring, build a student's confidence as well, which is a definite gain on a student's side.
You are the founder of the Action International Martial Arts Association. What does this organization have to offer the martial arts student of today?
The most appreciable aspect of the AIMAA is our open mind to all styles of martial arts and also our encouragement of a unification of all students. We strongly believe in harmony and encouragement of each individual student. Our organization provides our instructor members with services such as advice in running a successful martial arts business, along with summer/winter camps, seminars, tournaments, etc. that are available not only to our AIMAA members but any and all martial arts students. We recently created services that are available through the internet website. (www.aimaa.com), including virtual training on the online newsletters. We are also a nonpolitical association that believes in the importance of keeping an open, direct line of communication with the head instructor and other senior instructors around the world. The AIMAA is, in one word, a family. We love to personally teach students who crave to master the arts both physically and spiritually.
Do you have representation of your organization worldwide?
Yes, in both England and Ireland as well as Scotland and we have several schools and internationally certified AIMAA instructors. In England the chairman is Mr. Graham Lambert and he can be contacted at www.AIMAAUK.com. The European director is based in Ireland and is one of my senior students, Master John Darcy of Ireland who has numerous AIMAA schools throughout Ireland. Master Darcy can be contacted at www.AIMMA.Ireland.com.Our most recent European members are from Scotland, with director Mr. John Kirkwood. For the past 25 years I have been travelling Europe and have put on literally hundreds of seminars and demonstrations. When I first arrived in England I found techniques and experiences were behind America and so I introduced many new effective methods of training, teaching and business. We still have high hopes and dreams but have accomplished a great deal, especially in Europe, AIMAAs largest members. We have members in other parts, in scattered areas of the globe, such as Canada, the United States, Germany, Nepal, Pakistan, Australia and Italy.
You held your first world championships in Dublin 2002. Was this a success, and where will your next world championships be?
I believe that our first world championships were a tremendous success. We really tried to focus on allowing it to be an open competition that promoted harmony amongst all martial artists. There was representation from various countries, and, overall, the organization and enthusiasm was incredible for a first event. We will work harder to avoid mistakes we may have made in our first event. We plan to have our second world championship in Dublin, Ireland again in 2004. Since it is still the beginning of our championships we may continue at the same location until we establish the event more. The plan, for now, is to hold the event every four years. We anticipate increasing participation and success for the championships.
You mentioned that your organization offers winter and summer camps. Could you explain what these are exactly?
The AIMAA offers camps for martial arts students, regardless of their style and what organization they may belong to. We had our first summer camp in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania last year. The events success was sensational. We had students coming from Ireland, England, Germany and the United States. Instructors had the opportunity to teach students in an area they may specialize in such as cardio, kickboxing, patterns, boxing, grappling, sparring – the variety of instruction available is incredible. I teach and supervise throughout the event as well. The best part was simply the fact that students were able to meet new people and build friendships around the world. We had nothing but positive feedback on the event and we anticipate even greater success for our next summer camp coming up next year.
Grandmaster Cho, looking at your website I was intrigued by your complete encyclopedia information, from over 200 hours of video instruction to the most complete martial arts library books that detail several different aspects of Tae Kwon Do, and also by your new virtual training club could explain what this is and let us know of our plans for the future?
A lot of work went into completing all my books and videos as well as my virtual training club. What the virtual training club offers is an idea from some of my senior students. Each day I train at my Do-Jang and my senior ranking students suggested that I film my workouts and put it on the internet. This was a great idea and offers the general public a complete understanding of the different training methods that comprise the complete Tae Kwon Do system. In addition, we offer information on health and nutrition as well as positive living philosophy. It is my goal that martial artists, as well as non martial artists, benefit from becoming a member of my virtual training club. It is a complete and comprehensive program that is constantly updated.
You have achieved so much in Tae Kwon Do, do you still have ambitions?
Definitely - people should always have hopes and dreams, unless they're dead. I believe I have achieved my initial goals but now I hold aspirations for a martial arts college. Hopefully, I will be successful in achieving this goal while I'm still here.
How important is tradition?
Tradition is essential to any art or culture. If you cut the roots of a tree, the tree will be unable to grow. Only a tree whose roots are nourished will grow strong and bear much fruit. Tradition is the roots of Tae Kwon Do, the roots of all martial arts. Take away tradition from martial arts and it will become impotent.
Do you think Tae Kwon Do will continue to grow and be just as popular in many years to come?
There is now doubt that Tae Kwon Do will continue to grow in its popularity. It is an art that has always had fairly steady recognition, unlike fads that come and go rapidly, like the recent heat caused by Tae-Bo and other upbeat aerobic workouts. Again, I believe the tradition and spiritual levels of the art are what keeps it going. Fad workouts may offer fun ways of keeping in shape but they fail to offer holistic health in terms of both body and mind when compared to martial arts. Tae Kwon Do in the Olympics will definitely promote the art worldwide as well.
How do you continue to come up with all these innovative training programs?
I always looked at how I could improve Tae Kwon Do training. For instance, if you want your body to be in good shape you cannot neglect your mind or your spirit. So it is important as an instructor to research ways to improve all areas of life.
Do you still teach at your school?
Yes, I teach every class other than our Saturday classes. I am a Master, regardless of Tae Kwon Do being my passion. If I didn’t teach, I wouldn’t be doing my job.
What is your daily training schedule?
I don't have a set routine; my training is a bit spontaneous as to how I am feeling that day. However, I always try to incorporate every aspect into my training; flexibility/stretching, cardio-bag workout or jump-roping, strength weight-lifting, hand and foot conditioning, etc. There are no limits to my training other than when I have to sleep or eat.
To finish, do you have anything that you would like to say to the martial arts community?
I am truly proud of all martial arts students around the globe for their dedication to their art. I hope that martial artist of all styles will recognize this common unity and continue to grow as a community, harmonized by the founding principles of the art.