Soft-spoken and bespectacled, Sean Kim doesn’t come off as a tough guy.
But this guy is tough.
A La Cañada High School junior, Kim is a promising taekwondo prospect, in the pipeline to perhaps someday represent the United States at the Olympics. Taekwondo is a Korean martial art, a sport that emphasizes kicks and awards points for those that are successful.
Kim trains six days a week with Olympian Walter Dean Vargas at his studio in Redondo Beach. He does homework and eats dinner in the backseat of his mom’s car as she drives him to the high-intensity practice sessions, from which they return, usually, between 10:30 p.m. and midnight.
“Every athlete,” Kim said, “they live a completely different world in the afternoon. Sometimes you just have to understand that they might not be in the best mood, or they might be hurt or emotionally distraught. So just don’t look at them too harshly.”
Before competitions, Kim is almost certainly “managing 10 pounds,” subsisting off a protein-and-water diet in order to drop to his optimum 105.8-pound fighting weight.
And he’s also almost always sore, because, well, taekwondo.
“You get used to it,” he said, with a laugh. “But it’s really hard. Sometimes, it feels like my body is going to break, but I just push through, push through. Sometimes, I have to take Tylenol before practice to ease the pain. So, yes, my whole body hurts, and when I’m cutting weight, I feel weaker. It’s hard to focus sometimes.”
But it’s worth pushing through, he promised, to achieve that hard-fought feeling of accomplishment.
Twice an invitee to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Kim, 17, last summer finished third among the competitors in the 15-17 age group at the Amateur Athletic Union Taekwondo National Championships in Richmond, Va.
As the 2017 taekwondo calendar begins to pick up, Kim has his sights on qualifying for nationals in the next age grouping, the category for fighters between the ages of 18-32, the division from which Olympians come every four years.
“I might not medal,” he said. “But I want to get the experience.”
After nine years of doing taekwondo, Kim’s gotten wise to its ways — especially because success didn’t find him until last year, he said.
“I would always get stumped my first fight,” he said. “And I’d cry a lot, or I’d just want to give up. But the seniors on my team or my coaches would always give me good advice.”
He recalled attending the national tournament a few years ago and getting “gapped,” or defeated by a mercy rule that kicks in when one fighter is ahead by 12 points.
When he was gapped again soon thereafter at a tournament in Mexico, “I just said, ‘OK, this sport is not for me,’” Kim remembered.
That’s when one of his older teammates told him: “Even if you lose, it’s not because you’re bad, it’s just not your time. There’s an athlete’s click, where it just clicks. And the only way to achieve it, you just have to keep working hard.”
That advice motivated Kim to keep pushing, keep pushing, and also to think of the younger fighters who were looking up to him.
For Kim’s mom, Ashley Jun, that’s what she hoped for him from the sport.
“I’ve been with Sean on every car ride, plane trip, practice and tournament,” she said in an email. “Every time Sean seemed to be lost or saddened in the darkness, I wanted to teach him to broaden his perspective. More than winning and losing, I wanted Sean to learn the bigger life experience — to understand that success doesn’t come without pain, and at the same time, to not get cocky because of success.
“It’s alright to be the turtle rather than the rabbit, as long as Sean doesn’t give up.”
Oh, but how he wanted to.
Kim said his parents signed him up for taekwondo nine years ago because they had a friend who opened a studio and they thought it would be good exercise.
“I hated it,” Kim said. “I would always say, ‘Oh, my head hurts,’ or ‘My stomach hurts,’ so I wouldn’t have to go. But eventually, after watching all these high-level competitors, I was inspired and I really wanted to be out there.”
He’s developed a style that works, a cerebral approach that includes strategy and lots of study, which allows for swift in-fight reflexes. It’s helped, he said, to read sports psychology books and watch psychology videos. He’s developed a reputation for maintaining the same calm expression, whether he’s lost points or gained them.
“We talk about cognitive psychology and the importance of believing in yourself and thinking positively,” said Gavin Williams, who teaches the 4th-period psychology course at LCHS that Kim said he especially enjoys.
“It’s not just some touch-feely mumbo jumbo, it’s scientifically proven: If you believe you can get something accomplished, your ability to succeed increases.
“And he’s going one step further than memorizing something for a test; he’s applying it to his life.”
Kim intends to keep applying it, and to keep pushing. His ultimate goal, he said, is to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Williams won’t count him out: “If anybody can, he can.”
Said Jun: “His determination has been a great sense of achievement for us all.”