To Commit Is to Win – Grandmaster Han Won Lee’s TaeKwonDo Journey
by Amy Scott Grant
Once glance at Grand Master Han Won Lee’s impressive TaeKwonDo track record is enough to make any student shake in his dobok. Yes, he is a formidable competitor, a savvy businessman, a seventh-degree black belt, and an Olympic medalist. Yet his warm and welcoming smile puts anyone at ease, and his passion and commitment to teaching are evident to anyone he meets.
Grand Master Han Won Lee began studying TaeKwonDo at the age of 12 in Korea, then continued when his family moved to the United States in 1976. He studied under Grand Master Joseph Lloyd and Great Grand Master Chong, where his passion for teaching was first ignited. Today, Grand Master Lee owns three TaeKwonDo schools in Colorado, but he didn’t arrive here by accident. At least, not after his first serendipitous encounter.
“Michigan was my first U.S. home when we came here from Korea,” Grand Master Lee recalls. “One day, I walked past a TaeKwonDo class at the University of Michigan campus. It was a student club led by Great Grand Master Chong, and I wanted go inside but I was afraid because I only knew a few words in English. From the outside, I watched that class many times before I mustered the courage to go inside and ask if I could join. I was just thirteen years old but they welcomed me in.”
As he progressed through the belt ranks, his passion for teaching grew. He opened his first school in Michigan in 1989. “We had 70 to 80 students then, and we just sparred all the time, every day,” says Grand Master Lee.
But his own commitment had been tested time and again prior to this. He set a huge goal to compete in the 1984 Olympics, and while he made the team in 1982, he did not make the team in 1983, and did not attend the ’84 Olympics. He reset his commitment and trained his focus on the 1988 Summer Olympic games in Seoul. But during the 1987 Pan Am games in Indianapolis, tragedy struck when he tore his PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) during a qualifying match. Running on sheer adrenaline and determination, he powered through the pain to win four additional matches including one knockout. However, in the final match, his opponent recognized his weakness and strategized for the win. That competitor went on to win Gold at the Pan Am games. “This motivated me even more to make the Olympic team in ’88,” says Grand Master Lee.
“Life is sometimes unfair,” he muses. “It takes so long to get into competition shape, but only a month to get out of it.” After his injury, he opted for compensatory strength training instead of surgery, trained harder than ever, and went on to earn a Bronze medal at the ’88 Olympics.
“Before my injury, I was training six to eight hours per day, but after the injury I had to work even harder,” he recalls. “Sometimes I woke up at 2:00 A.M., feeling like I hadn’t trained enough that day. I’d get out of bed, get dressed, climb over the track fence and run sprints in the middle of the night.”
It is this same determination that Grand Master Lee instills into his students today.
Statistically, just one out of a hundred students achieves black belt status. In Grand Master Lee’s dojang, approximately seventy percent (70%) of the students who commit follow through and achieve black belt status. Morever, 100% of those who prepay for four years of TKD training achieve black belt status. Why? “Because the parents have the mindset of commitment and support. A black belt is expensive – they’re not going to let their son or daughter quit when they’ve invested so much money in the outcome. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
Grand Master Lee feels commitment is the cornerstone of achieving success. “Life is full of peaks and valleys. Who you are and how you act during the valleys determines your character. In four years of working on black belt, students will experience peaks and valleys. Being a parent sometimes means making kids do what they don’t want to do, and helping them to keep their commitments.” Grand Master Lee understands this first-hand. His teenagers (daughter Amelia and son Sang Won) are both black belts.
His passion for teaching stems from the positive changes he sees in children of all ages. “There’s something about a uniform and a black belt that makes kids pay attention,” says Grand Master Lee. “When parents tell me about their children showing lack of respect, I know even the toughest kids will listen when they come to my dojang and I stand before them in full uniform. Then later, to hear the parents tell me of their children’s transformation after learning TaeKwonDo, that is the most rewarding thing for me as a teacher.”
Sometimes he is visited from college graduates whom he taught as young students, just five or six years old. As adults, they share with him the huge impact TKD and his teaching has made in their life.
Specifically, Grand Master Lee recalls a young boy who would not let go of his father’s pants leg during class. “The father and son were taking classes together at my dojang, and the son had many physical challenges. He has respiratory issues that often put him in the hospital. For a full month, this child clung to his father’s leg during every TKD class. Slowly, his confidence grew and he is now getting his black belt. In fact, he missed the last black belt test because he was hospitalized, but the father tested that day. Now he is testing by himself. This is a tremendous growth of confidence and it makes me so happy to see!”
Grand Master Lee’s dream is to help underprivileged children in low-income neighborhoods. He volunteers his time to teach TKD at schools in deprived areas. His next big goal is to open a TKD school in one of these underserved areas, where children can come in after school for tutoring and help with their homework, as well as to take TKD classes. He is currently moving forward and securing funding to make this dream a reality.
What’s the secret to Grand Master Lee’s success? “If you’re passionate about your work, it’s not work, it’s play,” he smiles. “Seeing kids improving and building character makes it easy for me. Plus, I have great people around me, and this makes a big difference. I put in the same type of energy now as I did when I was training. Passion transfers to other areas as well.”
When asked what advice Grand Master Lee would give students who find themselves at a low point about continuing their commitment, he suggests staying goals-focused. “Keep thinking about the big picture. What’s the carrot? What are you striving for? Is it black belt, living the life of a black belt, exemplifying the philosophy of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit? If so, you can say, ‘I can overcome this because this is my goal. This is what drives me. This is what I will accomplish.’”
Grand Master Han Won Lee is the current Executive Vice President of Kang Duk Won, and is slated to succeed his teacher, Great Grand Master Chong as KDW President.
February 2017’s Issue Features Kang Duk Won