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Bolstered by community, UCLA club taekwondo achieves historic nationals finish

Members of UCLA club taekwondo pose with their hardware at the National Collegiate Taekwondo Association Championships. (Courtesy of UCLA club taekwondo)

By Lauryn Olina Wang

April 26, 2023 12:29 p.m.

This post was updated April 27 at 10:58 p.m.

If there’s one way to coax coaches and competitors alike out of retirement, it’s through the community of UCLA club taekwondo.

And some of those athletes completed their collegiate debuts on the nation’s biggest stage.

Supported by entries from experienced taekwondo artists who had once stepped away entirely from the competitive scene, UCLA club taekwondo achieved historic success at the 2023 National Collegiate Taekwondo Association Championships from April 14 to 16 in Boulder. The Bruins received first place in the Black Belt Championship division for the first time in program history, alongside eight gold medals, one silver medal and two bronze medals. Three athletes also qualified to represent Team USA at the Federation Internationale du Sport Universitaire World University Games in Chengdu, China, in July.

“We knew we were pretty close in terms of points to the other schools, … but since there was no official leaderboard, it was a little hard to keep track of the exact points,” said sophomore Collin Le. “When they were calling up the schools, they went from third to second. When we didn’t hear our school, we knew that we got first. That was an exciting moment.”

Le added that representing UCLA at nationals contributed a new dimension to his journey in taekwondo dating back to 2009.

“I was really excited that UCLA had a taekwondo club, so of course, I instantly joined, and that was my way to get back into competing,” Le said. “It was really exciting to be competing for a school and to be representing a school.”

Assistant coach and sophomore Erica Seo also contributed to the team’s first-place finish in poomsae, emerging from a yearlong retirement to submit her name to the NCTA Championships draw five days before the competition began.

Seo – whose resume includes multiple Team USA nods, World Championship stints and Pan American Championship appearances – said this year’s NCTA Championships conjured a novel level of nerves.

“I was very nervous for this competition, actually the most nervous out of any of the competitions I’ve ever had in my life,” Seo said. “I was essentially going back to the competition scene, going against my old competitors who would basically already know how I used to compete and would be expecting a lot.”

Seo was originally recruited to join UCLA club taekwondo by fifth-year student and assistant coach Derrick Kwak. The Southern Californian said he grew up with exposure to the club, attending its local events and trainings and becoming familiar with the community far before he became a Bruin. Once he transferred to UCLA, he recognized the opportunity for Seo to get involved in a coaching role alongside him.

Kwak also emerged from retirement at the national tournament, earning first place in the Team Trials Sparring event before qualifying to represent Team USA at the FISU World University Summer Games. His expertise in sparring differs from the poomsae art because it involves improvised fighting rather than choreographed moves.

Instead of a cumulative point system, sparring operates through brackets and weight categories. Unlike the anticipation of the poomsae squad during the awards ceremony, Kwak said he knew on the mat when he had climbed the summit and reached the top of the standings.

“You have your quarters, semis, you have your finals, so you know exactly when you win,” Kwak said. “Even when the time was ticking down, I knew in my heart that I won this, it’s over.”

The stakes are especially high for athletes like Kwak because the only possible route to qualify for the FISU World University Games this summer is through the NCTA Championships. The former taekwondo student at Yong In University in Yongin-si, South Korea, noted that some athletes with FISU World University Summer Games aspirations will enroll in college just to have an institution to represent.

Despite his hiatus, Kwak is no stranger to the global stage. He competed in the World Taekwondo Junior Championships in Burnaby, Canada, the same year Seo took the stage at the World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships in Lima, Peru. Neither athlete could have predicted that they’d be making history as Bruins seven years later – especially as once-retired competitors.

Seo said she ultimately attributes the change in fate to the UCLA club taekwondo community.

“My teammates are so fun and lovely, and I respect them so much because they constantly remind me how hard it is to take time off a sport and work really hard based on pure passion,” Seo said. “They rekindled my passion … and helped me find my path towards taekwondo again.”

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Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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