I have an announcement to make. And I’ve never written this many drafts before, only to discard them all. So here it is, flat out: I am stepping down from competitive taekwondo.
Unsurprisingly, this has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. It feels like the end of an era. Like I’m moving on from something that has given my entire youth shape. That’s what taekwondo has done for me: it has shaped me as a person. Only because I went after my childhood dream to be a taekwondo champion, have I become the anything-is-possible kind of guy that I now am. I really do owe any later achievements to those formative years I dedicated to taekwondo and to the mentality that came with it.
The thing is, I am also the first to admit when a dream stops being a dream. And if I’m honest, as far as taekwondo is concerned, that is now the case. Not because I have lost my sense of determination. Not because I’ve discovered that the dream is unattainable — even if it were, and it probably always was, in my view a ‘crazy’ dream is all the more worth fighting for. No, simply because I no longer get up in the morning with the thought: ‘I want to be the world champion in taekwondo’.
A somewhat unsettling realisation? Yes, at first. A reason for despair? No, not at all. I do wake up with the same level of energy and enthusiasm, only accompanied by a different thought: ‘I want to be a literary translator’. Having tried my hand at full-time taekwondo — a sport which, my former coaches will happily concede, I never really had a particular talent for — I decided to study something that I am actually good at: language.
For a few years, I combined my taekwondo career with an academic/professional career (a BA Classics at King’s College and an MA Translation at SOAS). With everything that London student life has to offer, it took some discipline — no one likes to always say no to their friends. But, that very period will go down in history as my taekwondo heyday: representing the Netherlands twice at the Universiade (Gwangju ’15; Taipei ’17) and placing 16th in the world, that I will never forget. And yet the thought has grown on me to once again commit 100% of my time and energy to only one thing, just like I previously did with taekwondo. Literary translation is a career path that suits me, that I enjoy, that has a future. And I have found it through taekwondo. It now deserves my full attention.
As I turn this page, it feels appropriate to stress that I have a very deep respect for all the masters and fellow athletes who I’ve met along the way, some of whom I would like to explicitly mention here. Not as some kind of farewell note, but to acknowledge their importance in my reaching this ‘pivotal’ point, if you like.
- First and foremost, Master Bob and American Fitness, where it all began, age 7: more than taekwondo per se, you have taught me the fundamentals of self-motivation, without which I would have gotten nowhere at all.
- Grandmaster Kang and Namchang Dojang, where my relationship with taekwondo went from ‘sport’ to ‘way of life’, you have shown me what it is to really live for something, both as an individual and as a team (or family, I should say).
- The Dutch national poomsae team, of which it was a dream come true to be a part in the first place, you are going from strength to strength and I am confident you will keep surprising the world (also, Joël, how you are taking the male U30’s by storm, chapeau mate).
- Master Gemma and the UK national poomsae coaches, whose efforts to reinvigorate the UK poomsae programme one can only applaud: you are the reason I have continued to grow after moving to London (and who knows, things might have turned out differently, if only I had had a UK passport).
- King’s Sport, LTA and UCL Taekwondo, who have proven to be the most welcoming (student) taekwondo communities around London: the vibes, the spirit, the support (looking at you too, Mehdi) — simply extraordinary.
I will keep following and admiring all of your efforts, and cheer you on. It has been an honour to work together. Here’s to you.
Now is also a moment where I am mindful of the enormous support I have received from people outside the world of taekwondo. Those who, way back, contributed to my crowdfunding campaigns to cover my training expenses in Korea. Those who believed I had a story to tell, to the extent of making a documentary about it (Stephane, you rock) and inviting me to deliver a TED-talk. And above all, friends and family. One of the reasons it took ages for me to be at peace with this decision, was the unbearable feeling that I would somehow ‘betray’ that support by ‘bowing out’. It was my wise parents and ever-inspiring sister who made me realise: if I feel so strongly about translation, I’m only betraying myself by not throwing myself at it.
Finally, this inner struggle is also why I have been off the radar for a while. I definitively shifted my focus as early as March and have actually had a few small triumphs in the field of translation already: I accepted an offer for an MSt Korean Studies at Oxford next year and I won a major translation competition (spoiler: it’s getting published very soon). But I couldn’t get myself to share such news, because it wasn’t part of my taekwondo ‘storyline’, which was still ‘running’. Silly as it may sound, just by writing these words down I have found some form of closure; frankly, it has been quite liberating. It is amazing how one adventure leads to the next, how two seemingly divergent paths are actually a continuation of one another: I am so very proud of where taekwondo has taken me.
 Stephane Kaas’s documentary, Oriental Odyssey, was broadcast on Dutch national television, then screened at the Moscow International Film Festival — and is now up on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/215397074.