I adored sports from my earliest childhood. My greatest hero when I was but five was Buddy Flynn, a big guy who lived up the street on Homewood Avenue and played football at Guilford College near our home in Greensboro, North Carolina. I have a picture of myself in a jersey he got for me, and I look serious, because for me this was a calling.
I began playing organized football in elementary school, continued throughout high school until—as fate would have it—I got a dislocated shoulder and a detached retina my junior year while tackling a very large runner. This injury also knocked me out of basketball because, in reality, it is also a contact sport; however, I was able to continue with the one sport I loved most dearly, track and field.
In elementary school I won the Atlanta City primary school track in the 6th and 7th grades in the broad jump. In high school, I accrued a fair share of medals at both the city and state level in the high jump, the high hurdles, and the low hurdles. I continued track at Vanderbilt, receiving my varsity letter my sophomore year.
Through the years that followed, I dabbled in local softball and touch football leagues, but in 1976 I began what would be an enduring dedication to Tae Kwon Do. I began this martial art somewhat for self-defense purposes, but soon fell in love with the discipline, the exercise, and, most of all, tournament fighting.
At first it was hard for me to reconcile this delight in trying to strike someone else (even though we were all thickly padded with protection gear) with the Bahá’í teachings which strictly forbid hitting another person. But inasmuch as this was a highly regulated sport in which there was no intention of animosity or serious injury to another, I continued, especially when I learned through some circuitous means that Rúhíyyih Khánum had taken karate lessons (I have no idea if this is true or not).
In any case, I became steeped in the philosophy underlying the art—the Um-Yang Philosophy—and even wrote articles and a short book on the philosophy with my teacher, Grand Master Yung Ho Jun. The end result was that over the years as I traversed the ranks through the various levels indicated by the varying colors of belts, I acquired a major stash of shiny trophies, some towering over four feet tall.
In about three years, I attained the rank of Black Belt, a level where the majority of students drop out because achieving this title had been their principal goal all along—to be able to introduce themselves as a Black Belt in a martial art, an appellation surely to intimidate the most daunting adversary or to inflame the heart the most winsome woman. But for me, it was only a beginning.
I continued through the various levels of Black Belt, eventually becoming a fifth degree Master Instructor. At my test, I had to demonstrate my prowess by breaking five boards stacked together with a jumping back kick. I broke the boards clean through, though many is the night these days when my arthritic foot might wish I had been allowed to break something much softer.
Of course, I am still a Master Instructor, but inasmuch as teaching was my profession, I had no desire to start my own school or teach anybody— except my son James, who having taken years of dance classes at his mother’s ballet school, was beautiful to watch. He seemed to float as he moved, and his leg simply stayed aloft ready to strike. He never lost a fight.
In any case, because it was unseemly for someone of my rank to participate in tournament fighting, I drifted away from practicing the art, though my body is even now reminding me of what I accomplished—I have had to have both hips and both knees replaced, a reminder of the joy of jumping up and down thousands of times barefoot on hard floors, and stretching my hips until I could do a split.
For the present, I enjoy swimming. I try to do my forty laps—a bit over half a mile— something I took up in the mid-1970s. I do not compete, except with myself by trying unsuccessfully to match the times in which I could complete this distance some twenty years ago when I did flip turns. These days I often forewarn the young lifeguards that if I ever stop moving at any time during my laps, they should immediately jump in! They laugh until I tell them straight-faced, “I’m eighty years old and I’m not kidding!”