Carol A. Cowgill stands 5-foot-4 and weights only 110 pounds, but she packs a lot of clout.
Though a student of the Korean martial art, Tae Kwon Do, for less than two years, the 31-year-old Cowgill can snap two one-inch thick wooden boards with her feet and at least one similar piece of wood with her hands.
Her ability to pack as much punch with words led to her recent appointment as secretary-treasurer of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Tae Kwon Do Committee.
Cowgill, an attorney who is director of the D.C. office of the American Academy of Family Physicians, first became interested in Tae Kwon Do because of "just the practical application where you might have some options if you must defend yourself. I think this is advisable in an urban environment."
Despite developing the skill to earn her green belt (third in a progression of six achievement levels) and two Potomac valley AAU women's titles last month for women's form and power demonstration, Cowgill has had to battle the traditional upbringing of a petite, demure woman.
"It's an eye-opening exprience if you grew up in the age I did," said the Southwest D.C. resident. "I was taught girls were supposed to be weak, and I was never in a fight. Little boys were always punching away at each other . . . (It has been a new experience) to find out for the first time what it's like to be hit and to respond to it. I have to be taught. I don't respond to anything instinctively."
Cowgill, who is not paid for her work for the national committee, does not compete in the free fighting aspect of Tae Kwon Do because she would not be allowed to wear gloves to protect a broken hand, which she suffered during a practice session in December.
Tae Kwon Do, literally translated, means "the art of striking and punching with the hand and kicking with the foot." There are three types of competition for the 2,000-year-old sport, though only two will be practiced in the upcoming AAU national championships April 8 and 9 at Howard University's John Burr Gymnasium.
The first and most popular - free fighting or sparring - is the only type where competitors square off against each other. There are usually two rounds that last two minutes each for men and 90 seconds each for women. During these rounds the opponents try to score points by punching or kicking to the upper torso or by kicking to the head, which is considered the most difficult move. Points are scored by the referee by the amount of blows which make contact and the difficulty of these moves. Punches to the head and blows below the belt are not allowed, nor are actions considered by the referee to be vicious. If a fighter is stunned by a blow, he or she has 10 seconds to recover before being disqualified.
The competitors must wear chest protectors and may wear shinguards.
The form competition consists of an individual performance of one of the approximately 10 routines, which are a combination of the different Tae Kwon Do moves. The routines, in which the performer is supposed to finish on the exact spot where he or she started, are graded for grace, coordination, accuracy of routine and the demonstration's difficulty. The grading is usually done by a panel of three judges, similar to figure skating competition.
The reponse to the fourth annual naional championships at Howard reflects the growing popularity of the sport. Dong Ja Yang, the tournament director who also teaches a class in Tae Kwon Do at Howard, said more than 1,000 entries had been received by mid-March and he expected about 1,300 applicants by the beginning of the event.
"I call tell you one thing - Tae Kwon Do is going to be one of the largest combative sports in the United States," said Yang, who serves as vice president of the National Tae Kwon Do Committee. "It will soon be overcoming judo, karate and boxing."
Supporters of Tae Kwon Do, which became an AAU sport in 1974, are trying to have it incorporated into the 1984 Olympics.
Cowgill is busily preparing for the championships at Howard, but she does not know whether she will participate as an administrator, contestant or both. Whether she competes or not, Yang, a black belt himself in both Tae Kwon Do and judo, thinks Cowgill will achieve her black belt in a year or so.
"Her performance is a fine example that Tae Kwon Do is adaptable for all human beings, no matter of size or age," Yang said. "Her whole character is calm and reserved. But when she works, her work is the same as any college student. Her progress is very comparable to that of the college students."