In late November, at age 62, Chris Holts became the oldest female black belt currently studying at the Korean Martial Arts Family Center in Gig Harbor. Holts is a big fan of taekwondo in general, and her Gig Harbor dojang specifically. Holts said, “Taekwondo is flexible and accommodating. It is one of the best things you can do for your mind and body.”

Chris Holts bows to her grandson, Bennett Small, before a practice match. Photos: Don Tjossem, KP News

Taekwondo is a type of martial art created from elements of karate as well as traditional Korean martial arts. Developed in the 1940s and ’50s, the sport has gained popularity in the United States in recent decades.

Holts, who works as the office manager at Minter Creek Elementary School, became interested in taekwondo about six years ago. She had been working out at the YMCA, but found that without a workout partner, exercise was tedious and boring. “Sometimes I would get as far as the roundabout and just keep driving back around and go home,” Holts said.

When a friend suggested she look into martial arts training as an alternative, Holts was initially skeptical, but decided it was worth a try. She found the dojang master warm and friendly. Having worked extensively with children, Holts paid close attention to how the master interacted with the little ones. She approved.

“I made it known I wasn’t going to become a black belt. I was just going to keep my body in shape,” Holts said. It wasn’t until later that Holts learned testing for and progressing through the belt levels is required.

A few months into her training, Holts brought along her grandson, Bennett Small, who was 6 years old at the time. After observing one taekwondo session, Bennett was also hooked. His interest inspired Holts to keep going, despite the requirement to attend two to three practice sessions a week and practice at home too. “I wanted to set a good example,” Holts said.

Now 11, Bennett earned his black belt alongside his grandmother this fall. “It was a family affair. To be up there getting our black belt at the same time was very special,” Holts said. Holts’s granddaughter Kimmy Small, 10, is currently a brown belt.

Grandmother and grandson both proudly wear black belts. Photo: Don Tjossem, KP News

Taekwondo does not focus solely on physical fitness. Part of Holts’s black belt examination included an extensive research paper on the history of taekwondo. Her grandson had a similar written requirement. Minors studying taekwondo at the Gig Harbor dojang also need to memorize and follow 14 rules governing their behavior at home and school. These include instructions on showing respect to elders, helping with household chores, getting homework done, keeping their bedrooms clean and maintaining personal hygiene. Children who do not obey their parents may receive a reduction in rank.

Holts is far from finished with taekwondo. “I look forward to the time I retire so I can focus on it. I could be better if I practiced more,” she said. Within the practice of taekwondo, “moves” are known as “forms.” While she has earned her first black belt, Holts plans to keep practicing the forms she has learned, progressing with new combinations in pursuit of higher degrees of black belt.

Holts believes people of all ages and fitness levels would benefit from learning taekwondo. “It’s fun, it’s a lot of work but I don’t regret it,” Holts said. Explaining that a shoulder injury kept her from practicing her punching forms, she was permitted to practice kicking only for a time and skipped sparring sessions until it healed.

Seniors up to age 70 are currently studying taekwondo at the same dojang. “Physically, she’s really benefited from participating in martial arts,” said the dojang master of Holts. “Martial arts benefits people of any age. A young person needs life skills, but a senior is more concerned about their health, keeping a range of flexibility and so on.” Master Charnley recalled the early days of taekwando when the sport was more geared toward competition. “Back then, 40 years old was old,” he said. “Today’s taekwondo is different. More and more seniors are recognizing the benefits of taekwondo. Health issues can actually be addressed through martial arts.”

For Master Charnley, Holts’s experience of coming to enjoy exercise through martial arts is a familiar one. “You can go to the gym, but then you have to motivate yourself,” he said. “Learning taekwondo, you have a teacher who motivates you. If you miss class, you get a phone call. When someone is actually working with you, that’s a great motivator. You have to find a teacher you can connect with.”

Holts has come a long way from her days of turning back home before making it to the gym. “When you’re there, it’s like you are part of another family,” she said.

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