Only a couple seconds before the end of a nail-biting match, a student, who’s already down by a handful of points, delivers a game-changing blow—a spin hook kick. The move, which takes a supreme amount of precision and skill, managed to leave an audience in suspense and disbelief as judges tabulated the results.
“The best part was that it was more dramatic than that,” says grandmaster Eui Young Lee, the head instructor at World Taekwondo Academy in Maple Grove. After Lee’s student initially lost his match, video replay needed to be consulted in order for the judges to make sure they were making the right call. Sure enough, the results ended up being overturned in the student’s favor, and Taekwondo Academy took home two of the four medals offered to those competing that evening.
For Lee, this kind of excitement is nothing new. As the head instructor at World Taekwondo Academy, he has always extended himself beyond the limitations of his role in Maple Grove. On his own, Lee is the most accomplished taekwondo athlete in the Midwest and is also the only professional taekwondo athlete in Minnesota, he says. Take one moment to speak to Lee, however, and it’s easy to see that his most treasured accomplishments are the ones where he’s able to make an impact on a much larger scale. In Lee’s case, his impact is felt worldwide.
Once serving as a coach for the U.S. and Great Britain Olympic teams, Lee’s latest athletic endeavor is one that he hopes will have a lasting effect. Following his work with the Olympics, Lee has taken his skill, ability and heart to Haiti, where he’s in the process of developing the country’s Olympic taekwondo team. “Our main focus is to develop the athletes,” Lee explains, noting that not all of his athletes in Haiti are currently in fighting shape. That doesn’t dissuade him from working toward a medal-winning team. “They’ve got a long way to go, but I think with some time, they’ll get there,” he says.
Taekwondo runs in Lee’s blood. His father, grandmaster Byung Yul Lee, founded World Taekwondo Academy in 1969 after immigrating to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea, only one year before. Although Lee admits that continuing his father’s legacy wasn’t something he was always sure of taking on, he discovered his passion for taekwondo in high school. He has since taken on the great responsibility of being a taekwondo instructor and became a grandmaster himself, a journey that took close to 30 years. “It makes me proud,” Lee says of his father, who has since passed away. “When your parents pass away, you look back,” he says. “You [remember] what it was you had and how lucky you were.”
In part of continuing that legacy, Lee has made a point to bring his gifts, both athletic and altruistic, to Haiti. “I want to coach, but I really want to give back,” he says. As he’s racked up accomplishments, Lee has always had the idea of a taekwondo mission trip kicking around in his mind and heart. “I’ve worked with the richest and most challenging teams in the world,” he says. “I want to use this sport to help people smile again.”
Like most mission trips, it takes a team effort to make everything happen. Students at World Taekwondo Academy have wasted no time in making sure that the soon-to-be Olympians from Haiti have all of the supplies and uniforms they need in order to continue their training to be truly remarkable athletes.
“We have truckloads of things that students have packed up for Haiti,” Lee says. His ultimate goal is to have students from the academy make the trek down to Haiti with him and other instructors, teaching students about the power of community and volunteerism in the process. While students have yet to make the journey with Lee due to logistical concerns, Lee has been to the island twice and plans on making even more trips in the future.
Until he can begin to bring his students to Haiti, Lee brings his family with him to the Caribbean country. Wife, Cheri, and their three daughters, Lauren, Ava and Jessica, have all helped Lee fulfill his mission of giving back to the people of Haiti. “It’s been really nice,” says Cheri, who serves as an administrative assistant at World Taekwondo Academy. “Our first time down, [my daughters and I] were all very excited and nervous, but it’s been so exciting to see how this has all progressed.”
While Cheri and her daughters aren’t planning on coaching, they all have their own achievements in taekwondo, with Cheri having a first-degree black belt and Lauren holding the current title of National Taekwondo Champion for the USA Taekwondo Cadet National Team.
The Lee family doesn’t plan to end its trips any time soon. “They’re far behind,” says Lee of the Haitian taekwondo team. “Just to get them back on track is a challenge.” Lucky for the island athletes, the challenge isn’t one that Lee is planning on backing away from. “We’re there to educate the coaches and help them understand the purpose of change.” At the end of the day, Lee realizes that these mission trips are about much more than just him and his work. “I’ve just been blessed with the fact that they’ve liked me and are willing to learn,” he says.
Taekwondo, like any other martial art, does require athleticism, but students of the sport who plan on succeeding with that alone won’t make it very far. “It takes perseverance and discipline,” says Lee, noting that those who want to pursue the sport, whether it’s for pure fun or to fulfill Olympic dreams, should know that “easy” isn’t a word that will end up in their vocabulary when describing the sport. “It’s very rewarding,” Lee says. “[Taekwondo] teaches you how to work toward your goals.”