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Because I'm in the Leadership program at my ATA school, my Instructor asked me to think of a way to serve others in my town. I decided to pick up trash at a park near my house so that kids like me would have a clean place to play. My Mom and Dad and even my little brother helped. It was kinda gross, but I had fun. I really like helping people!
– Paxton Thomas, Yellow Belt, 9 years old


From ATA World Volume 20, Number 1 Spring 2013

When Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee started the American Taekwondo Association in 1969, he envisioned creating a world-class organization that teaches martial arts skills and values to Americans. But that was just the beginning.

Over time he set bigger goals with an international scope. With several key global leaders in martial arts, ATA today is both a world class and a worldwide organization dedicated to improving minds and bodies across the globe.

With about 300,000 students training at 1,100 schools and clubs on six continents, ATA has established itself as an international a
mbassador of Taekwondo. Its unique style of Songahm—a universal language of forms, life skills, and goals— and established business practices has helped the organization spread from the United States throughout South America and Europe, and into Canada, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

“Eternal Grand Master really wanted to change the world one black belt at a time, first in the United States and then around the world,” says Senior Master Rick Abair, director of training for ATA. “We’ve always considered ourselves a worldwide organization. It’s a natural extension of Eternal Grand Master’s vision to go worldwide with this martial art because it offers so many great things for communities and for people to improve their lives.”

And ATA’s growth to 20 countries is truly gaining momentum. In 2011 and 2012, the organization welcomed many new schools around the world, including four in Scotland and one each in Portugal, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Even Iraq. Even back to Korea, the birthplace of Taekwondo.

So how has a humble organization that started with one school in Omaha, Neb., grown into an international powerhouse of Taekwondo? Through the dedication of its members, many of whom strive to turn their love of martial arts from a passion into a vocation, and from the ATA itself, which provides a business backbone to school owners that helps them succeed.

Early Days

ATA’s first forays into international waters began, as always, with one person who simply loved Taekwondo. Cesar Ozuna, now a Chief Master, left his home country of Paraguay to attend college in California, where he continued his Taekwondo training at an ATA school. After graduate school he returned to Paraguay in 1980 and started teaching Taekwondo there. Ozuna used Songahm forms and ATA’s organizational structure, which he learned in the United States. It was a success. He recruited five instructors and quickly grew his network into 1,200 students.

Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee was inspired by this progress, and together in 1984, he and Ozuna launched ATA’s sister organization for South America. Called the Songahm Taekwondo Federation (STF), the organization and its founders harbored plans to spread Songahm Taekwondo throughout the continent. After building a strong foundation in Paraguay, the STF next moved into Argentina in 1987, followed quickly by Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru.

Though Taekwondo had been popular in Paraguay for years, the ATA introduced something new: the life skills–based curriculum and the organizational assistance necessary to start and grow a business. “I had a really great group of instructors who were good technicians, and they were good with form, sparring, and business,” Ozuna says. “Most of the other people weren’t educated on the business part. We wanted to make a living doing martial arts.”

In 1990, ATA crossed the border into Canada, establishing a foothold in Vancouver, British Columbia, thanks to Master Scott Karpiuk, a 6th Degree Black Belt. As a college student in Missouri, he trained with Master Tony Isaacs and learned the fundamentals of Songahm Taekwondo. When he moved home to Canada, Karpiuk decided to open an ATA-affiliated club to teach those life lessons and skills to others.

That’s one way ATA has grown around the world—through people who study or work for a time in the United States and then return to their native countries. They believe in the Songahm training and philosophy and want to pass it on to their fellow citizens.

Other times, American service members overseas start a club to teach Songahm Taekwondo, and it takes off. Eventually the club prepares enough local instructors to start a school. (Example: the ATA club in Baghdad, Iraq.)

Keys to growth in both South America and Europe stem from Eternal Grand Master’s insistence early on that ATA be a professionally run organization, with policies, procedures, and computerized membership rosters. This gives Songahm martial artists a leg up when they start their own schools. Then, owners continue strengthening their level of Taekwondo practice and instruction, and their schools, through annual training camps, where instructors and students from across a continent join for several days of competition, seminars, and bonding. This demonstrates to owners and instructors that they belong in ATA, with more than just Taekwondo— with access to business infrastructure, curriculum, and institutional knowledge, Abair says.

Growing for the Future

To continue prospering, ATA has made a concerted effort in the past five years to connect its schools outside of the United States to its headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., with more communication, training, and on-site visits from top leaders. It has built a more formal infrastructure, where designated leaders connect often with international representatives from each country to offer training and guidance. With this structure in place, ATA is poised to increase its presence in Europe in the coming years. “We have so much momentum going now. People realize we can do this,” says Abair.

The support and training from ATA headquarters and leadership has been critical to helping school owners thrive. Like Pedro Tanger, who owns the Songahm Taekwondo Academy Tanger in Lisbon, Portugal. He credits his success in building a school of 340 students to the World Traditional Taekwondo Union (WTTU), the affiliate of ATA covering Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. A 4th Degree Black Belt, Tanger left his career as a lawyer to follow his passion for martial arts, and he opened his school in 2008.

The curriculum, life skills training, and approach to teaching (gleaned from ATA) make his school stand out from other martial arts organizations. “There is no other school like mine in Portugal,” Tanger says. “No one else teaches with the care for students and their needs in life like we do.” Integral to that education, he adds, is business support and teaching materials from ATA headquarters, including instruction guides, marketing ideas, and special programs like bullying prevention.

A new club owner, Jamie Freeman moved to Prague, Czech Republic, for her husband’s job in 2012. Soon after, the 2nd Degree Black Belt kicked off a WTTU club at her son’s school. Freeman says she benefits greatly from other WTTU owners throughout Europe, who are eager to answer questions and provide support. Two-day visits from Abair and Tanger helped Freeman get established and receive business advice—essential to a first-time club operator.

A final ingredient important to the global growth of ATA is hard to quantify. Its club and school owners are intrinsically woven into the fabric of the organization, having risen through the ranks from students and competitors to instructors and leaders. They are steeped in the ATA tradition, knowledge, and family— whether they belong to the STF, ATA, or WTTU—and they speak the universal language of Songahm forms, life skills, and philosophy.

“The ATA creates great instructors. What needs to shine is not the school; what needs to shine is the instructor,” Ozuna says. “Many other organizations have failed internationally. We had the right people, and the ATA as an organization helps people make a living from martial arts. The ATA does that very well.”

With this common outlook— and the strong business fundamentals laid out initially by Eternal Grand Master Lee—schools around the world continue to attract students and thrive.

When students in Lund, Sweden, enter the dojahng, they learn the same forms as students in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or Brisbane, Australia. They practice the same kicks, punches, and weapons skills. They face the same tests to move to the next level.

This unified system of forms, known as Songahm Taekwondo, bridges differences in nationality, language, and culture.

Songahm forms separate the ATA from other martial arts organizations, explains Senior Master Rick Abair, ATA director of training. “All of the forms are good, but our level of difficulty is higher, so it challenges the practitioner more. And it’s ours—it’s exclusive to us and it gives us a unique quality that this was developed by us and for us,” he says.

Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee, with the assistance of other senior instructors, developed Songahm Taekwondo between 1983 and 1990. Its 18 forms build on the foundation of other Taekwondo styles but highlight the strength and beauty of kicking techniques. At the same time, Eternal Grand Master Lee fully integrated the Songahm curriculum so that students learn in an ordered progression; every new skill, kick, or punch reinforces their previous learning and logically leads to the movements required for each rank.

Having a standardized system of forms allows members to walk into any ATA school around the world and join in the training without missing a beat. Plus, Songahm Taekwondo helps students develop a shared knowledge of life skills—including leadership, passion, discipline, and loyalty—that transcend culture.

“What we find is that the common thread of being a human ties into [strongly exhibiting] these life skills, no matter your nationality or what language you speak,” Abair says. “People understand perseverance, dedication, and loyalty, along with the fantastic physical training and leadership that make ATA second to none in any martial arts organization in the world. That’s an international language right there.”

More than 20,000 people across South America train and compete Songahm style through the ATA ’s affiliate organization, the Songahm Taekwondo Federation (ST F). Rather than progress in isolation at 350 schools and clubs in six countries, a multitude come together each year for the STF Pan-Am Tournament to learn, train, and compete.

Hosted by Chief Master Cesar Ozuna, co-founder and president of the ST F, the Pan-Am Tournament is a highlight of the year for South American Songahm martial artists. The federation holds national and regional events throughout the year—including two national tournaments each in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay, two regional tournaments, and one national camp. This particular year of hard work will culminate at the annual tournament on Oct. 4-6 in Foz do Iguazu, Brazil. A certified instructors camp will immediately follow the tournament on Oct. 7-10.

This year, participants will focus on standardizing techniques and teaching materials for all South American schools, under the theme of “Unity, Standardization, and Strength Through It.” Ozuna aims to prepare instructors to succeed in their own schools while readying others to launch schools in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.

“At these camps and tournaments, people get to know each other and create a relationship,” says Ozuna. “That’s what works to keep them growing, and we create many more instructors and a strong organization.”