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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Seniors excel in Taekwondo despite the sport’s gender imbalance

Senior Margaret Laver performs a roundhouse kick during her black belt assessment at the Sunnyvale Martial Arts Academy.
Margaret Laver
Senior Margaret Laver performs a roundhouse kick during her black belt assessment at the Sunnyvale Martial Arts Academy.

As the breaking board snapped, the small crowd that had gathered to watch senior Margaret Laver’s third-degree black belt assessment at the Sunnyvale Martial Arts Academy on Oct. 27 erupted into applause.

“I felt like a big weight [was lifted] off my back because [board breaking] was the part of the test I was worried about the most,” Laver said.

Laver performs as part of the studio’s special demonstration team at in-studio competitions, in addition to coaching and judging Taekwondo belt promotion tests in her free time, where she scores younger students on techniques such as board breaking and sparring.

Senior Esabella Fung, a first-degree black belt who has trained for six years, also coaches and practices Taekwondo. Fung initially joined Taekwondo because she wanted to do a sport that would take advantage of her legs’ superior strength compared to the rest of her body. She found that the strength training offered by Taekwondo has proven useful when she performs in color guard, as it has enhanced her coordination, flexibility and resolve for success. 

Colored belts determine advancements in Taekwondo. Laver first attained black belt status when she turned 12. She has since reached the rank of third-degree black belt, the highest rank of the colored belts, out of nine black degrees total. However, since progression to higher levels demands a lengthier time commitment, Laver intends to conclude her martial arts journey at the third-degree level.

On average, passing all colored belts takes around four years, and attaining each black belt degree takes the corresponding years of the degree number, she said. 

Laver started taking Taekwondo lessons at age 7. Since then, she has been practicing about four times a week for roughly 1.5-2 hours per session at the Sunnyvale Martial Arts Academy. 

During her first three years of training, she remembers wanting to quit since she found practices to be painful and physically dangerous. She even tried out the other forms of martial arts such as boxing and Jiujitsu offered at her studio — but her parents wanted her to stick with Taekwondo. Additionally, since her brother — sophomore William Laver — is also enrolled in Taekwondo classes, Laver said she would never hear the end of it if he progressed to a higher belt than she did.

Though she stuck with the sport, Laver’s physical concerns were later validated after she broke her foot practicing at home on her hardwood floors during quarantine, accidentally cracked her brother’s rib while practicing kicks too hard and had to limit exertion during Taekwondo sessions after having surgery during the second semester of junior year. Nevertheless, Laver is glad she continued Taekwondo.

“Training in Taekwondo has truly helped shape my mentality,” Laver said. “It has taught me responsibility, focus, and most importantly, I can defend myself when I enter the real world.”

Being a rare female who excels in the sport

One hidden challenge of pursuing Taekwondo is a significant gender imbalance. Particularly, when coaching younger belt levels, she has seen that there are five boys for every girl participating.

During regular training sessions, Laver also observed that boys mostly paired up with each other. This necessitated girls with varying belt levels to spar, making it harder for them to grow their skills against tougher opponents.

Fung has also seen the gender imbalance in Taekwondo.

“Guys typically won’t fight or practice with me because I’m a girl,” Fung said. “As a result, when we do spar, they believe girls are bad at Taekwondo — but, it’s only because I haven’t had the chance to practice with someone my own level since there are so few girls in my class.”

Despite the challenges, both girls said they have found   joy in mastering Taekwondo and they have supported each other by attending each other’s belt promotion tests. 

“My favorite memory was when I got the high score on my black belt test, and Margaret was right there cheering me on,” Fung said. “I felt so empowered because despite being disadvantaged in sparring practice, I was still able to rise above.”

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