By Michael Carman
Peninsula Daily News
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A group of seven White Crane students underwent rigorous black belt testing in taekwondo and gumdo sword martial disciplines under the careful watch of a panel of martial arts experts.
Three students, twins Justin and Zachary Irving, and Angelina Sprague successfully tested for black belts in both forms.
“Those students put in 360 class hours in order to be able to test,” White Crane Martial Arts owner and taekwondo Grand Master Robert Nicholls said.
“I think it went really well. I was particularly impressed with how they stayed together during the routines and how well they were synchronized.”
“Since most of the group are kids we know their focus and power will improve if they keep training and transition from poom [the Korean word used to describe ranks for those younger than 15] to dan [rank for those older than 15].”
A visiting taekwondo Master, Sterling Chase of Colorado Springs, Colo., also flew in to help supervise the testing process as well as test for his seventh dan black belt and the new title of Grand Master, the payoff for a career in taekwondo stretching back more than 30 years.
Kathleen Young, who originally began learning taekwondo 15 years ago in Iowa, resumed training with White Crane and earned her International Taekwondo Federation first dan black belt.
The brother and sister duo of Fiona and James Coleman passed testing for the World Taekwondo Federation's first poom.
Students were responsible for memorizing all combinations corresponding from the beginning white belt through black belt and tested on numerous styles of the various forms.
One-step fighting techniques, sparring and board breaking kicks and punches also were scrutinized by a panel of judges.
At the beginning of the ceremony, Nicholls explained what judges were looking to see.
“We are looking for mechanics, to see if you have your hands-up, and for yelling,” Nicholls said.
“We aren't looking for height because it's crazy to think everybody can kick at head level.”
Nicholls enthusiasm for martial arts shone through, as he repeatedly and humorously implored his charges to use their loudest voices to impress the judges.
He returned this week from the U.S. National Taekwondo Federation National Championships in Chicago with a voice hoarse from yelling during his competitions.
“We need to hear you loud and clear up here,” Nicholls said to his students.
“Do you know why my voice is like this even after a few days? Because I wanted to impress the judges in Chicago.”
Gumdo sword participants displayed forms one through six on their own, and went through three more advanced techniques with Nicholls guiding the trio.
The three also practiced their form through strikes on foam targets and sent their wooden blades through old editions of the Peninsula Daily News in a variety of angles.
Gumdo sword participants also were watched during a foam sword sparring round robin session.
Chase capped the evening by breaking through five concrete cinder blocks with a speed kick.
Big event for studio
The ceremony was a momentous event for the downtown-based studio, and capped a fulfilling week for Nicholls.
Made up of six juniors and one adult, plus Chase, the group formed the largest testing group in the studio's history.
“It shows a maturation,” Nicholls said.
“The school has matured to a point where its not me doing everything everyday, it's a group of instructors who have been here for 5-6 years and can provide personal individualized instruction in a variety of forms.
“That's better for the students as we can all do the general stuff together and for the more intricate forms, we can divide into smaller groups.”
Prior to Friday's ceremony, White Crane had promoted 22 students to black belts in the past seven years.
Nicholls returned this week with two gold medals earned at the U.S. National Taekwondo Federation Championships.
A 45-year practitioner of martial arts, Nicholls, 58, won the Senior Master and Creative divisions at the event and was runner-up in a competition for Grand Champion to Master Michael Giaempetro of Texas.
In the beginning
Nicholls has overseen the growth of the studio from humble origins since its founding in Port Angeles seven years ago.
He operated martial arts studios in the Seattle area for a number of years before getting the itch to move to the North Olympic Peninsula, where members of his family have lived for many years.
Nicholls started hosting classes at FitnessWest, eventually moving into one small room, now White Crane's lounge, in the basement of 129 W. First St.
He instructed eight students in his first year, then word got out on the talented and respected instructor's taekwondo teaching credentials.
“The growth was exponential after that,” Nicholls said.
Nicholls and crew cleared out “80 years worth of accumulated junk,” in the basement and expanded the studio.
Nicholls partnered with Peninsula College, allowing college students to take martial arts classes for credit hours.
He went through the long process of registering as a 501c3 nonprofit organization and scoured General Service Administration sales for gym equipment.
He came away with a bouncy floor and installed a wooden ballet-like floor, a block-breaking area, a heavy bag area and spectator seating.
White Crane's student totals have stayed steady in recent years.
“For the last several years it has ranged between 70 and 100 students and certain times like at back to school and after Christmas are more popular.”
Many disciplines taught
A broad range of disciplines are taught, including taekwondo; hapkido, another Korean form that uses joint and pressure point manipulation to get out of various grabs and holds; kajukenbo, which uses joint locks, throws, strikes, and take downs; yudo, the Korean form of Judo; soo bank do, a classic form of White Crane style kung fu; gumdo swords; 'Lil' Dragons martial arts for small children; and advanced courses like martial arts gymnastics and the breaking of objects.
“We offer so many forms so people can focus on the things they like the best but also have a background that is very, very broad,” Nicholls said.
“That way, if they ever want to teach others, they have that broad knowledge base.”
A variety of payment options and scholarship plans are available for those interested in trying martial arts.
For more information, phone 360-477-4926, or visit whitecranetkd.org or search for White Crane Martial Arts on Facebook.
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5152 or at email@example.com.