CARMEL VALLEY — Winning the gold medal in traditional forms as a first-degree black belt at the American Taekwondo Association’s world championship tournament was no easy feat for Carmel Valley resident Demitri de la Cruz, who celebrated his 10th birthday just a month before the competition.
His opponents, representing more than 17 countries from five continents, were ranked as the top 10 students in their age divisions.
Throughout the yearlong preparation, Demitri took one-hour classes two to three days a week at Church’s Martial Arts studios in Carmel Valley and Encinitas. Every weekend he received additional private training from studio owner Trish Church or head instructor Carlos Aguilar.
To achieve the perfection he and his trainers knew the judges would be looking for, Demitri would sometimes have to practice one move 50 consecutive times. “She (Church) pushes me above my limits,” Demitri said. “But it’s worth it.”
While all his hard work, time and dedication to the art certainly played an important role in winning the gold medal, Demitri credits his success to something else.
“It was the support of my instructors and my parents,” he said.
A fifth-grader at Santa Fe Montessori in Solana Beach, Demitri began practicing taekwondo when he was 6 years old. “One night I was watching a Jackie Chan movie, and I said to my mom, ‘I want to try that,’” he said.
Explaining to her son that there is more to the sport than knowing how to kick and punch, Michele de la Cruz suggested he take lessons. Their search for a studio ended at Church’s.
“I saw the class and I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” Demitri said. “They gave me a free uniform and I started. It was fun.” It wasn’t long before Church realized she had a special student in Demitri. He earned his black belt within two years.
“He’s very young to achieve something of this magnitude,” Church said. Nationally, less than 4 percent of martial arts students who set out to earn a black belt ever do so, she said. The average age of those who are successful is 15 or 16 years old.
Founded in 1969, the American Taekwondo Association, or ATA, is the largest martial arts organization in North America. It supports the Songahm style of taekwondo, which uses forms as part of its fully integrated curriculum. A form is a planned series of movements that combines physical skills such as blocks, strikes and kicks with mental skills such as balance, coordination, discipline and focus.
The forms contain most or all the techniques students are expected to know at each rank, or belt color. The belts represent a member’s level of competence. According to the ATA Web site, achieving a belt isn’t a matter of “spending enough time” in a previous belt. To advance, students must demonstrate proficiency in basic moves, sparring and forms in their current rank.
There are 11 possible belt colors, with black being the highest. Within the black belt category, there are nine levels that can be achieved.
As a first-degree black belt, which he earned when he was 8, Demitri was ranked in the top 10 in the boys 8- to 10-year-old division in four categories: traditional forms, traditional weapons, sparring and Xtreme weapons.
He competed in all four at the world championship tournament June 23 to June 29 in Little Rock, Ark. The day after the competition, Demitri began the new season by placing first in traditional forms as a second-degree black belt.
Currently undefeated as a second-degree black belt, Demitri is well on his way to achieving his next goal — another gold medal at the 2009 tournament. In the long term, he hopes to one day perform on the world demo team “and maybe be in the movies” — perhaps even a Jackie Chan film.