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forms and white belts are assembling on the studio’s large red and gray mat. Mas- ter Michael Coles pauses at the edge of the mat, bowing before facing the class. “Student creed!” Coles says, and


the students snap their hands to their sides and recite a series of affirmations, mounted on the back wall between the U.S. and South Korean flags: “I will build my mind, body and


spirit. “I will develop my strengths and


overcome my weaknesses. “I will meet challenges with a posi-


tive attitude. “I will use my skills and knowledge responsibly. “I will lead by example, Sir!” For all of his career success, Coles


remains connected to his roots in Wash- ington and to the idea of tae kwon do as a means to give strength to the vulner- able. He has volunteered to teach at-risk and disadvantaged children through


charity programs and area schools for years. To celebrate the anniversary of his Bethesda academy — which he opened in March 2008 with his second wife and business partner, Joanne — he holds an annual Kick-a-Thon to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. This year’s event raised more than $10,000. Of the goals he set for himself in his life, Coles says, helping children is the most important. “I always wanted to be able to pay


my bills and have a good life, but it’s not about the money,” he says. “I’m so happy when people really benefit from tae kwon do. It’s really all about the kids.” At 57, Coles could easily pass for a


much younger man. The eighth-degree black belt grand master of tae kwon do is six feet of lean muscle, moving with focus and poise before his students as he slowly demonstrates a blocking and punching sequence. There is no hint that he under- went hip replacement surgery in 2003, after noticing a dull ache in his right hip


“I’m so happy when people really benefit from tae kwon do,” Coles says. “It’s really all about the kids.”


in 2001. He had pushed through the pain for months until he could no longer com- fortably sit or sleep; an X-ray revealed bone grinding against bone. On this day, Coles has the undivided


attention of newcomer Ray. Coles notic- es the boy’s concentration: “Great job,” he tells him, and asks the group: “What’s the most important part of class?” “PAY ATTENTION!” the students


chorus. It’s not something that comes easily


to Ray, who has been in foster care since 2003 and sometimes struggles with stay- ing focused — a common challenge Coles sees among his youngest students. Coles holds a padded cushion for


each of the students to kick in turn. Ray’s first kick is wobbly and too low. Coles points to the center of the cushion. “Higher!” Coles says. “Hit up here!”


Ray kicks again. “Good! Again!” Coles says. Ray centers himself and kicks, hard, exactly where Coles had pointed. “Yes!” Coles says, and looks intently


at the boy: “Now, can you do it again?” Ray hesitates as he meets Coles’s


gaze. Then he nods yes. “That’s right,” Coles says, holding up the cushion again. “That’s the way!”


January 1, 2009 | The WashingTon PosT Magazine


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