The powder-blue wrestling mats are torn in many places, and there are patches on the protective cushions stacked in the wrestling room in Howard University's John Burr Gymnasium.
This well-worn room may seem an unlikely home for a national championship club. But it is here that Howard's taekwondo club has jumped, kicked, jabbed and sweated its way to numerous national titles since 1967.
The hard work has paid off: The squad is the nation's top college taekwondo team. Howard will showcase its talent in the martial art tomorrow through Sunday when it will be the host of the Ninth Annual National Amateur Athletic Union championships in Burr Gymnasium.
Since 1975, the club has won more medals in National AAU competition than any other. The women's team has won the National Collegiate Championships for the last six years and the men have been the champions for the last four. Seven club members are on the National Collegiate team.
"The first five years were difficult--it taekwondo was a new sport and people didn't know about it," said Dong Ja Yang, the club's coach. "But I never gave up. Five years later, I heard people saying that taekwondo gave them the greatest discipline of any sport they've been in."
Howard's club started in 1967 when Yang, who left the University of Iowa to become an assistant professor in Howard's physical education department, first taught taekwondo and judo classes there.
Fifty students registered for the classes that year. Today, the club has 200 members.
Taekwondo, which means the art of striking with the hand and kicking with the foot (literally "foot-hand art"), originated in Korea more than 2,000 years ago. It is one of hundreds of styles of hand and foot fighting derived from kung fu and karate and is one of the three most popular martial arts.
Taekwando requires more kicking than punching, karate requires more hand moves than kicks and judo consists of throwing, holding, choking and using arm locks.
"Taekwondo teaches the student to be a humble, courteous person. It teaches discipline and to respect others," Yang said.
"We are a big family and look at Mr. Yang as our father," said student Doug Lewis, the only club member who is on the U.S. taekwondo team. Yang "is a guide and a positive role model," he said.
Yang, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and vice president of the Pan American Taekwondo Union, which has 32 member countries, is a black belt in taekwondo and seventh-degree black belt in judo.
He said his career in martial arts began in his native Korea when he was 5 years old. He was voted the 1978 National AAU coach of the year and is president of the National AAU Taekwondo Union, governing body of the sport in the United States under auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee, of which he also is a member.
During a recent practice session at Burr Gym, there was an atmosphere of reverence. Before walking onto the mat and again after each sparring session, the students bowed to one another, part of the art's ritual.
Each session started with individual stretching, punching and kicking exercises, the students responding without hesitation to Yang's demands, often acknowledging him with "yes, sir."
Finally, the students, wearing thin chest protectors, assembled in pairs for vigorous free-sparring. Charging and retreating, they exchanged fast-paced, fearless punch-kick combinations. But, to avoid injury, they withheld their strength on some moves. Blows to the head and face were forbidden.
"A normally conditioned person would last two minutes free sparring ," Yang said, while his students "usually spar for one-half hour in practice."
Becoming the national champions was not easy for the Howard team, recalled Lewis, a junior majoring in psychology. "It all comes under the discipline that tae kwon do teaches," he said.
The students are not eligible for athletic scholarships because the martial art is a club sport and has not been recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association as a varsity sport.
Team members have donated money earned on their part-time jobs for uniforms, equipment and travel expenses, "but the university has provided every appropriate support," Yang said.
The discipline taught by taekwondo has beneficial side effects, some students said. Kevin Coles, a mechanical engineering major, said it "helps me concentrate on my school work."
"I used to get beat up a lot when I was a kid growing up in D.C.," said Phil Cunningham Jr., a taekwondo black belt whose major is architecture. "But now I have a lot of confidence. I just walk away from fights."
Cunningham, a junior who ran on Howard's track team until a knee injury forced him to quit, said, "On the track team, guys felt they had to run because they were on scholarship, but we're out here because we want to be."
"Taekwondo opens a self-awareness where you find your body can do things you are not aware of," said Sumory Alpha, an assistant instructor. "Your body has been trained to react beyond the mind. You don't think about movements, you feel what you're doing. You react according to your feelings."
Taekwondo is slowly gaining popularity. The U.S. Olympic Committee recommended last year that it be included in the Pan American Games. In May 1982, the International Olympic Committee approved its inclusion in the 1988 Olympics.
And, Yang said, some European countries are considering including taekwondo in the next World University Games.
At the championship competition at Howard this week, selections will be made for the U.S. international taekwondo team.