A Master's Mission: Michael Coles used tae kwon do to escape a difficult childhood. Now he's helping others do the same.

As a kid from a troubled neighborhood, Michael Coles wanted control, confidence and respect -- and martial arts provided that path.
By Caitlin Gibson
Sunday, August 15, 2010

The advanced tae kwon do classis winding down at Coles Martial Arts Academy in Bethesda; there is only one more sequence of movements that Master Michael Coles wants his brown- and black-belt students to perform. A few elementary-school-age boys and girls, beginner-level students for the next class, are already filtering into the studio.

In the first row of chairs by the front doors, a 10-year-old named Ray plays a game on a cellphone, glancing up from time to time to watch Coles lead the class. Ray is wearing a white uniform and a white belt, ready to join the session that starts in 15 minutes. It is his second tae kwon do class, which he is taking at the encouragement of John and Laura Elsey, a British couple who are adopting Ray through the D.C. foster-care system. The Elseys are hoping that martial arts can serve as an anchor among the many changes in Ray's life, as the sport once did for Coles, who teaches tae kwon do less as an art of aggression and more as a way of living.

The brown- and black-belt class -- mostly adults -- stands against the wall as Coles demonstrates a series of moves: He rolls in a tight ball on his right shoulder, springs to his feet, then rolls again on his left. He leaps into the air and whirls around in a tornado kick. The motion seems effortless, every angle of his body poised, his hands and feet in perfect position when he lands on the mat.

The adults murmur and eye one another dubiously.

But the handful of children in the room -- including Ray, whose cellphone is momentarily forgotten -- are silent, wide-eyed and riveted.

In the early 1960s, Michael Coles and other neighborhood children would huddle together on the front porches of the rowhouses that lined 16th Street, straining to catch glimpses of television through a neighbor's screen door. It was how Coles -- then a 10-year-old who lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in the drug-addled Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast -- first watched TV.

A few years later, his family was able to afford a television of its own. Curled on their old couch, Coles discovered "The Green Hornet," the TV series starring martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Coles watched episode after episode, captivated by Lee's flawless moves. To an adolescent boy who had heard gunshots outside his home, Lee's aura of confidence and power was intoxicating. "Like watching God," Coles would say many years later.

Those images seemed a world away from him -- until months later, when Coles saw a commercial for a martial arts school.

The ad showed grandmaster Jhoon Rhee -- commonly referred to as the "father of tae kwon do" in America -- standing in his uniform, arms crossed and proudly declaring: "When you take Jhoon Rhee self defense, then you too can say: Nobody bothers me."

That sounded perfect to Coles.

He started a job at a car wash to save money for tae kwon do lessons, then took a bus after school three or four times a week to Rhee's academy on L Street in Northwest. Coles excelled immediately. After just four months of classes, Rhee asked Coles to compete in a tournament.

Coles relished tae kwon do but faced a decision: He also was an enthusiastic basketball player, and the schedules would soon conflict.

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